Help for the Vulnerable
Local non-profit group HealthServe taps an extensive volunteer network to reach out to low-wage migrant workers lacking healthcare benefits and legal recourse.
BY SOL E. SOLOMON
ince 2006, local non-profit HealthServe has been helping low-wage migrant workers with job-related challenges, in areas such as worksite injury, exploitation and alienation. It liaises with authorities, like the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the workers’ employers, on their behalf. Besides providing casework and legal support to those with legal, criminal, and employment-related issues, it also offers a sympathetic listening ear. Its 14 full- and part-time staff members include a nurse; it also has a large team of volunteers. Most of the staff and volunteers are Singaporeans, but the rest hail from all over the world.
MEETING BASIC NEEDS
HealthServe’s communications manager, Nhaca Le Schulze, an American, says the group finds itself doing more for workers from China, Bangladesh, and India. “We focus on this population because we have a decade of experience working with them; they are also among the most vulnerable migrant workers in Singapore,” she says.
HealthServe sees hundreds of cases each year, although there are no current statistics on the number of injured migrant workers in Singapore not receiving health assistance from their employers. The group has helped over 15,000 migrant workers in various disputes, including over unpaid salaries and work injury compensations.
“ Many of the workers we help end up volunteering with us at our clinics and in other areas. ”
Nhaca Le Schulze, HealthServeʼs communications manager
Compensation or dispute resolutions can take as long as a year, during which workers on Special Passes get no income as they are not allowed to work. To help them with necessities such as food and lodging, HealthServe provides free meals, subsidised transport, shelter, and emergency funds. It also provides weekly mental and emotional support for injured workers who are struggling to cope with uncertain outcomes. Many fall into depression over their inability to provide for their families, so HealthServe’s social workers follow up on cases closely, even accompanying them to check-ups and medical assessments.
One beneficiary is Zhang, a migrant worker from China, who suffered a serious workplace injury. His unethical employer refused to pay for his treatment or give him medical leave. Desperate for help, he turned to HealthServe, whose caseworkers helped him fight for his medical leave and wages, and wrote to MOM on his behalf. He subsequently received full injury compensation.
“After I was injured, I felt both physical and emotional pain,” Zhang said. “The ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ at HealthServe, with their patient help and support, lifted my spirits. The emotional pain has gone away. ”
To build the migrants’ skills as they wait for their cases to be resolved, volunteers run weekly English and computer classes at Tai Seng Centre, and conduct weekly outreach activities at workers’ dormitories to inform them of their rights and the resources available.
Outings and events are also planned, to help build a sense of community and take their minds off their situation. “Many of the workers we help end up volunteering with us at our clinics and in other areas,” says Le Schulze. These collaborations have opened up new opportunities for friendships and deeper mutual understanding.
HealthServe provides thousands with subsidised healthcare at its clinics in Geylang, Jurong, and Mandai. Last year it saw 7,822 patients. Workers can get general, dermatology and orthopaedic services, occupational and physical therapy, and dental care. A mobile clinic also runs four to six times yearly at various workers’ dormitories.
HealthServe’s medical, case support, and social assistance programmes face the most demand, as migrant workers often have limited access to healthcare.
They are charged foreigner rates at polyclinics, which is unaffordable, and very few get dental care, says Le Schulze. Local volunteer Dr Joshua Lam adds that in his experience, just showing care and concern helps the workers greatly, as many of them feel lonely and lost.
HealthServe also works with MOM to encourage workers’ companies to pay for hospital care. If an employer truly cannot do so, HealthServe will try crowdfunding, or even pay for the treatment outright, says Le Schulze. In the last financial year, 64 per cent of the group’s S$1.76 million income came from donations, followed by 25 per cent in grants, and 12 per cent via other means. It spent S$1.06 million of this on programmes (84 per cent), administration, and fund-raising.
Last year, HealthServe organised over 50 community outreach events. One was SamaSama, an art and story showcase at Westlite Mandai Dormitory during the Labour Day weekend. Nearly 500 Singaporean guests viewed the diverse art, photography, and video exhibits by migrant workers. This, coupled with a tour of the dormitory, and dinner with participating migrant workers, enabled the visitors to see the workers’ aspirations and achievements.
HealthServe tries to expand its services every year. Its 7,822 patients last year included 2,665 new patients over the previous year. It plans to keep increasing health checks and health screenings, and improving its organisational efficiency through strategic programmes and specialised job assignments. It will also continue in research and advocacy, to obtain data for discussion with relevant government bodies so as to raise issues and come up with solutions to better serve and protect migrant workers. These could result in better policies, systems, and law changes – to make Singapore a community where migrant workers feel accepted and supported.
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