Rediscovering Singapore's migrant worker landscape for a better Singapore for all
The migrant worker population in Singapore, long a large and vital segment of the national labour force, was severely impacted by COVID-19. Within the confines of the crowded living conditions, the virus spread rapidly through the dormitories where most migrant workers live. By May 2020, dormitory infections composed more than 90% of Singapore’s total confirmed cases. By December 2020, almost 50% of the dormitory population had been infected by the virus. With migrant workers' issues brought afresh to the forefront of the public consciousness, there was a great groundswell of support from all corners of the community.
The steward of the City of Good vision was working to grow a culture of giving in Singapore. The National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) was actively empowering stakeholders in the migrant workers ecosystem during the Circuit Breaker. Responding to these stakeholders’ input and recognizing the complexities of migrant workers’ issues, the pandemic presented a timely opportunity to propel leaders from the public, private and people sectors towards greater impact.
Playing its role as a neutral convenor at the intersection of these three sectors, NVPC engaged ThinkPlace Singapore to co-design and facilitate their first virtual Colabs series, given the new working realities brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. The goal was to bring together the trisector leaders to unpack the complex issues facing male migrant workers, and co-create systems maps that could be used by members of action networks that work to uplift the migrant worker experience in Singapore.
We used a systems-thinking approach to design a series of virtual workshops that would guide participants through the process of mapping out the complex interrelations between the different actors and issues that impact migrant workers, targeting the high-level aspiration statement: “How do we improve the quality of life of migrant workers for a better Singapore for all?”. Working closely with the NVPC team, we designed activities focusing on co-creating the system and journey maps, exploring specific issues, identifying opportunities for action, and crucially, facilitating relationship-building among the diverse stakeholders participating in the workshops.
How do we improve the quality of life of migrant workers for a better Singapore for all?
We began conducting the workshops in September 2020 using Zoom and Mural. Our participants included representatives from government agencies, foundations, businesses, non-profit organizations and ground-up movements, academics, and migrant workers themselves. We used Airtable to create a gallery of participants that gave everyone visibility over who else was involved to support their capacity to build relationships with other participants.
The delivery of the workshops was a highly iterative and collaborative process. Over the course of the ten weeks and five fortnightly workshops, we continuously worked with both the NVPC core team and a 'Brain Trust’ of core stakeholders to refine both the workshop design and the systems maps. Taking this approach meant that we were able to ensure the workshops were truly engaging and meeting the needs of our client and the stakeholders.
After the series concluded, we further refined the system and journey maps that had been produced into compelling visual artefacts.
The project was not without its challenges though, as COVID-19 continued to throw up new obstacles. One moment where we really felt the impact of the restrictions was in advance of the second workshop, which was focused on building empathy for migrant workers’ lived experience in Singapore.
A dormitory operator from the first workshop had offered to take interested participants on a tour of the workers’ dormitories to give them a deeper appreciation of what migrant workers’ lives look like. This would have been a fantastic opportunity for empathy and connection building, but a new set of restrictions meant it wasn’t possible.
We had to get creative to find a way to capitalize on this opportunity.
Thankfully, our constantly fantastic partners at NVPC worked with us to come up with a creative solution. They managed to recruit 10-12 migrant workers to join the second workshop, which involved getting permission from their employers, providing them with data cards, and finding translators where needed.
During the workshop, we split the cohort out into 10 breakout groups, each with a migrant worker participant present. This gave all participants the opportunity to have a more intimate conversation and openly share their experiences and ask questions. In one of these breakout groups, the migrant worker participant gave the group a tour of the COVID-19 quarantine facility he was living in at the time, providing an invaluable and authentic insight into his lived experience.
We at ThinkPlace believe that there is true value in getting different players in a system talking to each other and sharing their unique perspectives. Through this project we had the opportunity to utilise our expertise in brokering between different voices to help set the foundations for change in a vital space.
We got to see this opportunity realised. Across the workshop series, we saw relationships and potential partnerships forming between participants from different sectors and backgrounds. Through their collaboration in the workshops, participants were able to identify five areas of opportunity for action, giving them a clear potential pathway for creating impact.
Additionally, the co-created systems maps continued to be used by participants and other stakeholders as a common reference point to map out subsequent collaborations and initiatives. It is also a convenient visual ‘handle’ to attract other stakeholders who did not take part in the workshops to subsequently join their action network, further multiplying their avenues of impact.
The outputs of the project – both material and emotional – will pave the way for stronger partnerships and relationships between different players in the migrant worker ecosystem that will help uplift the “live, work, and play” experiences of male migrant workers in Singapore.
Colabs is a philanthropic initiative pioneered by NVPC and the Community Foundation of Singapore (CFS) to drive collaboration by bringing together the public, private and social sectors to tackle complex social issues. It enables the diverse sectors to come together, collectively build insights and work towards collaborating for greater social impact. Grounded upon the principles of “activating empathy”, “increasing cognitive understanding” and “building community, Colabs series are multi-month journeys involving learning, alignment and action. Prior to the Migrant Workers Colabs, NVPC convened series on Children and Youth (2017), Persons with Disabilities (2018), and Seniors (2019).