Foreign workers victimized by their employers in Singapore receive help from various welfare organizations here,
but have no place to live while justice is being meted out. One Catholic decided to do something about the situation by forming the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (H.O.M.E.) in 2004 to provide shelter for them – one for men, one for women. But Bridget Lew, who founded H.O.M.E. with the vision of "building a culture of
welcome", and the "strangers" she tries to help face many problems.
Recently, H.O.M.E., which runs a shelter at a rented three-storey bungalow in Kovan received an eviction order from the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) of Singapore because of complaints by neighbours. Reasons given for the complaints included feelings of uneasiness of the presence of so many migrant women in the neighbourhood, loud barking of dogs, and that the migrants’ singing distracts the neighbours’ children from their studies.
Following an appeal, URA gave H.O.M.E. a grace period to find alternative accommodation. Ms Lew has since found another residence in Katong, a middle-class residential area in the eastern part of Singapore, which has received approval by URA for use as a shelter.
CatholicNews spoke to Ms Lew recently at the migrant women’s shelter before the move to Katong.
Entering the migrant women’s shelter on Lim Tua Tow Road in Kovan means being greeted by two German Shepherd guard dogs, a deterrent to anyone who means harm to the women here.
"I like German Shepherds. They are sociable and can guard the women here," Bridget Lew explained over a cup of cold water.
Throughout the conversation with Ms Lew in the shelter, the dogs sat quietly on the sofa, even when a cat entered the house and lay next to the dogs, a testament to the harmony that H.O.M.E. espouses.
"The need for a shelter is there. When foreign workers suffer some violation of their rights, they become victims and they come to us for assistance," said Ms Lew.
Their violations of rights typically include non-payment of wages, abuse, or accidents with insufficient medical coverage. Sometimes maids who run away from their place of employment for various reasons (such as homesickness) also find refuge at the shelter. The alternative would be to have them returned to their place of employment, their employment agency, or their respective embassies.
Most of the people in the shelters are first brought to the Singapore Ministry of Manpower (MOM), which in turn refers them to their respective embassies or to H.O.M.E. for shelter. Eighty percent of the migrants that H.O.M.E
shelters are referred there by MOM.
According to Singapore law, migrants whose cases are under investigation are not allowed to work during this period and thus cannot earn their keep.
"They have no friends or family here, and they cannot go back to their employers," said Ms Lew. When URA instructed H.O.M.E. to move out of its Kovan shelter, H.O.M.E. responded that the people it shelters here are state witnesses, and that they need a place to stay. The URA then gave H.O.M.E. a grace period to locate new premises.
"We are like migrants too, always moving from one place to another," commented Ms Lew with a laugh.
In her 2008 biography written by students from Raffles Institution, Lew explained her calling: "To be a true Christian, one must live the Gospel. God says that no one should be discriminated, marginalized or excluded in his kingdom… beneath the skin of every individual runs blood which is coloured red, hence the differences do not matter. This is the reason for my calling, because I do not believe in calling myself a Christian if I do not live this belief."
"There are no other voluntary welfare organizations here that are dedicated to shelter specifically migrants, especially for the men. Only shelters meant for locals can gain financial support from government agencies. There is a gap in our social services, so I came in to help," she said.
The shelters cost about $500,000 a year to run. Rental alone amount to $15,000 a month. The funds come mostly from donations.
Ms Lew claimed that despite H.O.M.E. being recognized locally and internationally, "not once" has any Catholic organization reached out to lend support for her work which she described as "lay apostolate".
Though she expressed that no Catholic organization has approached her to help, she noted with thanks the few Catholic individuals who have supported her in her work.
Ms Lew told CatholicNews that she had previously approached the Catholic Social and Community Council (now called Caritas Singapore Community Council) to try to obtain funds for her organization to no avail. "They said that their funds can only be used for their local ministries," said Ms Lew, "but they do not recognize the work that I do as lay apostolate."
However, when CatholicNews approached CSCC to find out more a representative responded that "H.O.M.E. has not approached CSCC for funds as they are not our member".
On the other hand, the Kampong Kapor Methodist Church has pledged $2,000 a month to H.O.M.E. Ms Lew recounted how this came to be.
"They had a social service Sunday, and our women were invited to sing at all their services. We sang the Magnificat, a Marian song at the Methodist Church, and the congregation was so touched that one member, a judge, helped raise $100,000 for us. Another member, the president of the Singapore Stock Exchange, arranged for H.O.M.E. to be a beneficiary for one of their Bull Runs."
The Bull Run is an annual run organized by the Singapore Exchange to raise funds for various charities. Five percent of the $3.5 million raised in the 2007 Bull Run went to H.O.M.E..
There are about 600,000 lower-skilled migrant workers in Singapore, which makes up about a quarter of the workforce. About 170,000 of these are foreign domestic workers.
"The government and the community have to believe that there is a need for social structural support if we want them to come here and work," said Ms Lew who is also an advocate for migrants’ rights in the secular sphere. "Sometimes the problems are caused by our locals, so we need to provide them a place to stay."
When asked why she does not leave this work to the secular organizations, Ms Lew replied, "We want to provide alternatives so that if migrants have problems they can come to us and we can welcome them out of love for Jesus. Surely this is the mission of the church and our mission!"
Ms Lew was one of 1,000 women around the world who were nominated for the 1000 Peace Women project for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. - By Daniel Tay