Some cricket for foreign workers?

Thousands of foreign workers arrive in Singapore every year, filled with excitement and hope as they embark on a new chapter in their lives.

But this optimism is often tempered when they are confronted with regimental lifestyles and tough work conditions.

Many work 10 to 12 hours, six days a week, earning around $700 a month. But they do not have much to spend as their first year's salary typically goes to paying off about $8,000 in recruitment fees to agents back home.

They have to queue up to use the bathrooms. Often, it is past 10pm when they finally get to unwind.

Some squeeze in a quick phone call to family members or surf the Internet on their phones or laptops using Wi-Fi in the dorms.

The highlight of the week, therefore, is a Sunday jaunt to Little India where they can relax for free in the open fields. It is also the only day when shuttle buses ferry them, for a small $2 fee, from their dormitories in remote areas, like Tuas, to the area.

Sunday night's riot in Little India, which saw apparently intoxicated South Asian workers turning on police officers, has now raised the question of whether Singapore is doing enough to care for the social needs of these migrant workers.

Let's be clear: The violence that broke out was needless and unacceptable.

But we need to look beyond that to examine whether these men have turned to drinking as a form of release - and, as a result, sometimes turning belligerent - partly because there are just too few meaningful activities for them to participate in on Sundays.

Now, only some of the larger dorms have recreational centres where the men can watch movies, play sports and attend classes. Even so, activities are held only sporadically because they require time and effort to plan.

Migrant-worker groups in Singapore want to plan more regular social events, like movie screenings, but are cash-strapped because many depend on public donations. They lack volunteers too.

In looking for places to go to on their day off, some foreign workers say they stay away from swankier areas, such as Orchard Road, because Singaporeans look uncomfortable when they are there.

With few options on how to spend their time, the men end up going to Little India to make merry.

There, they can be themselves and take a break from the rules in their dorms, which stipulate no drinking and smoking in the rooms or rowdy behaviour. Those who err pay fines of $10 to $20.

The solution is not simply to herd them off to other more remote areas. Serangoon Road is a natural meeting place for many Indian nationals and Bangladeshis, given its many shops, restaurants and remittance centres catering to their needs.

More thought should instead be given to the provision of legitimate social activities for these workers, while also addressing the concerns of residents in the area.

Employers, the Government and foreign-worker groups can join hands to provide more venues and opportunities for these workers to meet and socialise.

One idea is to hold cricket tournaments in the many fields in the neighbourhood. Attractive prizes can motivate the men to spend their down time practising the sport, instead of drinking. Free screenings of popular Tamil movies will also be crowd-pleasers.

The once-in-a-year Deepavali carnivals that include bazaars and performances by Indian artists can also be held more regularly.

These social activities will keep migrant workers happy and help provide more healthy activities for them.

Happier workers are more motivated to stay on in Singapore to work and improve their skills. Becoming more productive, in turn, helps their bosses save cost.

These tangible gains aside, providing for the social and recreational needs of workers who contribute so much to Singapore's economy must start to be seen as part and parcel of hosting a foreign-worker community.

Singaporeans have to accept, and be willing to pay, the price of providing such services, if the much-prized social harmony here is not to be abruptly disrupted again.

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