21 Aug ItsRainingRaincoats
ItsRainingRaincoats (IRR), a social initiative set up in 2015 to raise awareness of migrant worker welfare, has been in the spotlight in recent times. Dipa’s journey with IRR started from a single act of kindness to some workers trying to take shelter from the rain (watch it here on TedX https://www.ted.com/talks/dipa_swaminathan_helping_migrant_workers). Today, apart from distributing snacks, food, essentials (including raincoats!), IRR has launched the Mad Wish program (where volunteers teach English) and collaborated with the Singapore Medical Society of Ireland to produce a mental health booklet in several languages.
Surene speaks to IRR founder, Dipa Swaminathan about her roles as a lawyer and social activist.
You must have your hands full, especially in the last few months. How do you juggle your work as an AGC at Singtel, family and IRR?
I think everybody has multiple interests outside work – mine happen to be with migrant workers, so whatever spare time I have, I give to this.
Given that we now have so many volunteers, it’s more light touch from me – I don’t do any physical running around, or in-person meetings (not with COVID) – so it’s a little bit easier now to juggle things. My days are packed and I don’t have very much time to myself… I don’t have my nails done and my hair is greying (*chuckles*)… so something gives, but there’s always time to catch up. There’s no scientific formula to it, it’s just very natural, very organic and it does keep me extraordinarily busy but it’s by no means impossible and I don’t think I’m necessarily doing more with my day than anyone else.
It also helps that my employer Singtel has always been more than tolerant of my work with IRR. They place a great deal of importance on community service and have been supportive and appreciative, for which I’m really grateful. It’s not something I can place enough of a value on. I don’t know many other employers who would necessarily see it that way.
There are also intersection points between what IRR and Singtel do: migrant workers are a part of their consumer base and I work with specific teams within Singtel that focus on this group. So it’s not just me as an employee doing IRR work, there are segues to different teams within Singtel and that has also helped me maintain this balance.
Why do you do what you do and what keeps you going?
I guess as lawyers, we’re all attuned with what is just and what is unjust, and to speak up where something needs to be said.
In Singapore, there are probably close to a million migrant workers and they are probably one of our most vulnerable communities. I was drawn to them through an earlier interaction, where, because of my writing a few emails, the circumstances for one worker changed in a very dramatic way. It was a great revelation to me, that with a little bit of investment of my time, the outcome for that worker was significant. And so, I started doing little bits and pieces in my own capacity and then IRR was born and now it’s a much larger group. But it all stems from the fact that there are those of us, given our circumstances in life, who are well placed to speak up for those who can’t do so for themselves and I feel that if I don’t do it, then who would? That’s what keeps me going.
I am sure there are many who would like to help but don’t know where to start…
A lot of people do come to us and ask how they could help but if lawyers are reading this, then there is a particular need that has now come up. Many migrant workers are either losing their jobs, unable to transfer jobs despite an in-principle approval, have unpaid wages or need medical help but are not able to get the approvals to see a doctor.
This is what we call individual case work, which requires someone to gather the information from the worker and figure out what to do – whether to make a call to the employer or write to the MOM or to direct it to the law firms that are helping us on a pro bono basis. This work does not involve giving legal advice – so one doesn’t need to be concerned that they are moonlighting – but having a legal background would certainly be extremely useful.** We have a standard operating practice for case workers to follow, so they won’t be the final port of call for these cases, but a channel to direct/escalate the cases.
What lasting changes do you hope to see, long after this crisis is over?
I really hope that as we come out of this crisis, people don’t forget everything we read and the photos we saw. At the very least, I hope we can be more accepting of the migrant workers in our midst – to not look away but instead look at them, make eye contact and smile at them. They play a huge role for us in Singapore and so I would like us, as a society, to become more compassionate towards them.
** To volunteer as a case worker, please email us at email@example.com