The Last Migrant Worker I Interviewed: Masum

(Photography: Ivan Henao via Splash)

The last migrant worker I interviewed was called Masum; he was a teenager from Bangladesh who was sold the big dream of City State earning. It’s what draws thousands of migrant workers to places like Qatar, Dubai and Singapore. Masum had lost his job over a work dispute; he was homeless, penniless, suicidal and sleeping rough on the streets of Little India, Singapore’s bustling migrant quarter. I was tracking his story for a local NGO called Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).

Back then I was pitching stories to British media about the ongoing problem of migrant worker abuse in Singapore, with little interest in their plight. Masum showed me some of the places where he had slept — a hawker center, a street corner, a void deck (the space beneath an HDB block). With his breadwinner dream about to be dashed, he told me he wanted to kill himself. His father had given up everything to send him here: he sold his house and cattle to pay the enormous recruiter’s fees. If Masum was to go home now it would ruin his family, whose livelihoods were tied up in this venture being a success.

A few days later he was deported via Changi Airport by Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower. And I didn’t hear from him again.

After five years of reporting on this problem I put Masum’s story on the light end of the migrant worker abuse spectrum. Much worse things were happening to others in Singapore. I wrote this story about domestic workers being starved, beaten and sexually abused. And this one for the Independent to coincide with David Cameron’s visit to the City State, where he had an orchid named after him.

Within these stories were tales of misery and horror. There was Adi, from Punjab in India, who called the police after she was repeatedly beaten with a belt by her employer. She cried through our interview and showed me the black marks on her legs. No charges were filed. Another woman from the Philippines had a chair broken over her back. Another reported that her employer kept deducting money from her salary every time she made mistakes. Then there was the domestic worker from Myanmar, who was sexually abused over a period of seven months. Her employer would only let her call her family after feeling her breasts. In some households, employers ‘manage’ their phones. Again, no charges were filed.

(A shelter in Singapore run by the migrant worker charity HOME, Photograph: Tom White)

I wrote these articles knowing that a local Singapore charity, called HOME, was about to launch a piece of research at the same time. It found that more than 10 percent of women were forced to sleep in kitchens, storage cupboards or the “bomb shelter” — the windowless bunkers fitted into Singapore’s high-rise flats specifically for domestic workers.

When we asked the Singapore government to show us what support they provided to domestic workers, they invited me to attend their Settling In Program, an introductory course to help domestic workers acclimatise to life in Singapore. During the course, they screened interviews with two women who fell from high-rise apartment blocks while trying to clean windows. They had shattered their legs. In the video, they lay in hospital beds sobbing, while a ministry worker asked them what a safer course of action would have been. Not all women who fall are cleaning, a case worker told me, some were trying to escape their abusers. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

At the end of the course a Singapore government worker approached me and asked: “Have you ever seen anything like this before?” to which my answer was “no”.

(Photography by Tom White)

After my final interview with Masum, I received a WhatsApp message from a friend with a video that had gone viral in Singapore. Coca-Cola had launched a campaign with a local charity called ‘Happiness from the skies’. It profiled a group of migrant workers sweating it out on a construction site, as drones delivered cans of Coke and inspiring messages from locals. More than 2,700 photos with handwritten notes were collected and attached to each can. They were then flown up to the 35th story of a construction site, where ‘happy’ migrant workers smiled and drank their Cokes.

I watched this film and thought to myself: Wow, it’s brave of Coke to step into a social issue like this. But then I realised it was part of a pre-emptive Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup reputation-washing exercise. In Dubai, a similar ‘happy migrant’ series featured workers calling their families from phone booths set up by Coke. Their personal misery and hardship became a nice prop for a brand film. Regardless, it felt timely. And, hey, if it led to a broader push for migrant worker rights in Singapore and the Gulf States, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

But no such thing happened. Because change wasn’t the goal. In the days that followed the video got shared widely on Facebook and Twitter, the media hits stacked up and Coke won lots of plaudits for focusing on the plight of migrant workers. Who knows what happened to those migrant workers on the 35th story or the ones in Dubai’s phone booths after the cameras stopped rolling.

And who cares, right? The videos were awesome. Happy migrants, happy Coke.

Coca-Cola’s efforts to profile migrant workers now looks odd in the context of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, a tournament which has set a new grim benchmark for their systemic abuse. As the tournament begins, we are learning to discuss this issue through numbers alone: of the dead, exploited, injured and abused.

For sponsors, the FIFA World Cup is about promoting their purpose and vision — and their wares — by an association with happiness, celebration and sport. All of life’s good stuff. It wasn’t supposed to be about death and abuse. But that is what they got. And they can’t say they weren’t warned. This is a Human Rights Watch report from 2012: “Unless FIFA and Qatar act, then the real ‘legacy’ of this tournament will be how FIFA, Qatar, and anyone profiting from this World Cup left families of thousands of migrant workers indebted after they died and left many migrant workers who had their wages stolen uncompensated.”

Can you blame Coke, Budweiser or Visa for this? They are only doing what countless other brands have done before them.

Our vision is to craft the brands and choice of drinks that people love, to refresh them in body & spirit. And done in ways that create a more sustainable business and better shared future that makes a difference in people’s lives, communities and our planet.

Coke’s campaign for migrant worker happiness in Singapore and Dubai were shot eight years ago, two years after the FIFA World Cup bid was won by Qatar. What else could sponsors have done to ‘make a difference’? This matters, because we need to be able to decipher between action and bluff. Brands have spent years talking about making lives better. They use the prism of fashion, music and sport, and, as consumers we watch, listen and like. Then we move on. What chance does Masum’s story of pain and anguish have next to a wide-angled panoramic of his fellow workers drinking Coke on the Singapore skyline?

Photo by Krisztian Matyas on Unsplash

The truth is that rather than making lives better many brands are in the awkward business of making lives worse. On climate, on workers’ rights, on health.

Or am I being woke? I’m writing this because I found the stories I came across in Singapore so shocking, cruel and dehumanising, but part of a global system of cruelty and exploitation that is widely accepted. We have casually allowed it to happen, because we benefit from this most, alongside the brands that look the other way. The interviews I conducted over five years with the abused, the injured and the soon-to-be deported, like Masum, all had a very clear red thread running through them.

They wanted the dream fulfilled: a safe place to work, proper compensation, and dignity and respect. All of the things we also demand from our workplaces.

I’ll watch this World Cup as a fan. But I know the sacrifices that were made to bring it to all of our screens, and how guys like Masum were shortchanged. They are more than just numbers. Their stories are amazing, too; their epic journeys are singular acts of love for which many pay the ultimate price. By the way, does anyone know their names? Why not beam them onto the Doha night sky?

There is salvation from this smoking wreckage. Those who benefit from this jamboree can push FIFA to compensate migrant worker families who lost their only breadwinner. That would be meaningful. And maybe at the same time stop with the purpose. It means nothing without action.

You won’t solve the world’s problems through gimmicky 2-minute videos of Coke drones, phone booths and skate boarders. Spend more time researching and listening to the people who know what is going on in these countries and the NGOs who work tirelessly, day and night, to raise awareness. Profile migrant workers through their acts of love not just their acts of labor.

Think about every life that was traded in for this tournament to happen: it’s about a death for every minute of football.

Because brands will keep telling us that they want to make lives better; and we’ll keep on watching their 2-minute videos and forget.

And for Masum, well, nothing changes.

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Rob O’Brien

Rob O’Brien

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Writer & producer based in Amsterdam. Stories for NYT, Independent & Penthouse. I write about people, life experiences, the everyday. Twitter: @robwriting