Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The Business of Adventures: Talking with Cai Yinzhou, Founder of Geylang Adventures

by So Young Chang

Adventure: an unusual, exciting, and possibly dangerous activity, such as a trip or experience, or the excitement produced by such an activity. (from the Cambridge Dictionary)

By definition, an adventure is something that takes place far from one’s comfort zone. It is not a word that would be used to describe activities in one’s own neighbourhood, that is, unless you live in Singapore’s red light district. Having grown up in Geylang all his life, the connotations of the place weren’t always known to Yinzhou. It was when classmates laughed at his introduction, or when army mates probed him about brothels in the area, that he realised how Geylang configures in the Singaporean imagination. 

In his own words, an adventure is “a sense of the unknown and an experience that you can’t define if you haven’t been on it before.” To counter some of the stereotypes he encountered, Yinzhou began doing walking tours of Geylang for friends, which eventually expanded to friends of friends. Two years ago, he quit his full-time job to start Geylang Adventures, a social enterprise that organises trails around Geylang among other activities such as Back Alley Barbers, an initiative that began by offering free haircuts to migrant workers, and Majulah Belanja, an annual event that brings together teams of three migrant workers and one Singaporean for a cookout competition. In the long run, his project is ambitious and idealistic: he hopes for a change in perspective where people’s work can be recognised in terms of their contribution to society and not by how much they are paid for the job. In fulfilling that vision, he is using Geylang Adventures as a platform to start a conversation, starting with those with an appetite for a bit of adventure. 

So, what is Geylang? It is indeed the only legalised red light district in Singapore, and over the years it has also gained a reputation for having some of the best food joints. It is also where a lot of changes have taken place post-Little India riots due to its large migrant worker population, becoming the testing grounds for the newest and latest surveillance technologies. 

Where most tour operators would stop at the curbside restaurant and a sideways glance at the “vices” in the streets, Yinzhou is much more nuanced and thorough in his approach. He makes you notice how right next to a brothel at street number 69, there is an established Buddhist association, speaking to the salvation and sin that co-exist in Geylang. Or facing an old apartment building, he makes you guess which flats have been converted into workers’ dormitories (hint: they are not supposed to be seen.) He points out how local residents would sometimes spray water on the ground to keep workers from gathering or how ultra-bright street lamps have been installed in every corner and alley to discourage people from hanging around. 

As a resident himself, he has a vested interest in the welfare of Geylang and emphasises multiple times throughout the trail that he operates on the principles of neutrality and mutual respect. His intention is not to protest the changes taking place in Geylang. Rather, he wants to ensure that all the stakeholders—whether local or migrant, influential or overlooked, rich or poor—are included in the dialogue and remain aware of each other’s needs in the space. 

Yinzhou does not see himself as an activist, but more as a facilitator who mediates the process of change. As a young Singaporean, he is wary of how his generation grew up without understanding how the current model of economic development has happened at the expense of a certain demographic of people, where low-wage migrant workers are seen as an economic asset.

“And when they get injured, they become a liability in this equation for growth, unscrupulous employers cancel their work permits, demanding that they should be taken out, and sent back as soon as possible. This chain of events is a direct consequence of their sudden lack of ability to contribute to the company's economic success.” 

This attitude is reflected in how migrant workers are geographically isolated and hidden from view by design—the ‘invisible’ dormitories being the most obvious example. He places a lot of importance on debunking this logic of “if you don’t see it, it means it’s not there.” 

“Because it’s not just a behaviour we are developing, it’s a culture. It’s a culture of being ungrateful to people who we know contribute directly to our success.” 

Seeing youth as a critical group, he also devotes a lot of time to speaking with students on leadership and community involvement. 

Walking through Geylang with Yinzhou, you get the feeling that he sees life itself to be an adventure. He is someone who is continually learning at every moment, whether at a library, from the street talk, or through plain old observation. Talking about why Singapore needs Geylang, he stresses that the lack of conflict and tension is not equivalent to harmony. Trying to keep people from gathering on the streets may bring down the level of noise or even the number of disturbances, but it may also take away the freedom and agency that everyone needs. He may not have the solutions to the problems that he sees, but with Geylang Adventures, he is helping to carve out opportunities for people to construct their future together. 

As he says, “real change is not about changing the dynamics of the ecosystem, but firstly to objectively accept and secondly to have the safe space for that conversation to happen.”

Talking with the sage of Geylang, who amongst his many endeavours, was once salvaging shipwrecks off the coast of Indonesia. (Photo by Kae Yuan)

Find out more about Geylang Adventures on their website or follow their Facebook page for updates on their upcoming events.

So Young Chang has recently finished a 3 month internship with Migrating out of Poverty based at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Here is not my home. The story of a migrant construction worker in Ghana

by Collins Yeboah

In Ghana, both skilled and unskilled migrant workers seek greener pastures in the highly concentrated city of Accra and its sprawling peri-urban areas. Most of these migrants end up working in the informal and insecure sectors as domestic and construction workers.

Usually, the migrant construction workers are practicing craftsmen – masons, carpenters, and steel benders. A study by Yaro et al (2015) indicates that migrants skilled in construction work spend years perfecting their trade at home before migrating, due mainly to the surplus of crafts persons in their originating communities.

Why do construction workers leave?

“There are jobs in the Volta Region for masons like me, but they are not too many - it is the big construction firms that get all the contracts and pay us the masons as they want”. 

These are the words of Divine, a 23-year-old mason from Tsitsito, in the North Tongu district in the Volta Region of Ghana. Divine migrated to Accra because of poor salaries and low frequency of jobs in the Volta region.

Our Migrating out of Poverty global qualitative study in Ghana* found that the livelihood options in origin areas, though diverse, are of limited benefits to the emerging youth. The towns and peri-urban areas have limited construction projects mainly provided by the state, the Ghanaian diaspora and residents. It was also found that the non-farm sector has blossomed but with limited profit margins due to poor purchasing power and low populations. Farming is an important activity in both Northern and Volta Regions of Ghana but one whose significance is decreasing due to dwindling land sizes in peri-urban areas, falling soil fertility, soil erosion, and rising input cost. Petty trading is therefore the norm in the origin areas, especially for women.

Given the above local origin context, rural-urban migration for skilled work is encouraged by the entire household. The study further found higher wages in Accra are a major attraction for migrants. Also, the waiting time for moving between contract jobs is shorter in Accra. Added to this is the fact that the desire for housing - as reflected in the aspiration of the middle classes desire to own houses - drives the demand for the services of construction workers. Global processes of industrialization, modernization, and urbanization also provide the opportunities and conditions for migration.

Our study found that the migration of skilled workers is encouraged by the entire household as it holds promise for moving them out of poverty. Like many migrants, Divine reported that his family members consented to his migration and gave him their blessings. He self-financed his migration from his savings as a mason in Tsitsito and thus doesn’t have any debts to repay:

“I financed my migration from Tsitsito to Accra. I do not owe anyone in my village. I have a purpose, to make enough money and go back so I can start my own business…” 

Others use loans from family members and friends to finance their relocation.

Conditions in the migrant construction sector

Migrants seek jobs wherever they perceive jobs are possible. Where there is an opening, an offer is made with conditions advantageous to the employer. There is little job security in the sector and few people have formal contracts. Arrangements are usually agreed verbally. Our study found that masons in the construction industry earn between Ghc 30-40 a day. Workers are only paid for days worked - an indication of the extent of casualisation in the industry. They are not provided with sick pay, except in cases where a worker falls ill on the job and cannot continue for the rest of his/her hours that day. But they are not paid for any subsequent days off.

Construction workers tend to labour throughout the week from 7:30 to 17:00, with one day off on a Sunday. The six-day work regime is used across all categories of construction work and there are high levels of flexibility for the non-formalised sector where the rule is fulfilling one’s contract rather than the time used. A mason in Accra is expected to lay 100 blocks a day or plaster two walls a day. A good worker is capable of achieving this task in 5 hours (also called ‘finish and go’). As Divine puts it:

“I can lay more than 100 blocks a day. Masa, when you start, there is no rest for you. You see the difficulty involved? It is a work for the strong not the weak” 

Despite the challenges that he faces in the city Divine still holds the idea to save enough and go back to Tsitsito. The intention to stay in Accra permanently, or acquire assets in Accra, is not part of Divine’s plan. He considers himself a ‘hustler’ and therefore sees Accra as a temporal place, a survivalist strategy to save money and return home:

“I did not come here to spend heavily on food. No way! I have plans to save enough of what I earn so I can go back to Volta region and establish my own work. Here is not my home”. 

Yaro, J. A, Awumbila, M & Teye, J.K (2015). The life struggles and successes of the migrant construction worker in Accra, Ghana. Ghana Journal of Geography Vol. 7(2), 2015, pages 113-131

*GP011 MOOP study- See one of our journal articles based on this study: Social Networks, Migration Trajectories and Livelihood Strategies of Migrant Domestic and Construction Workers in Accra, Ghana

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

A Stranger in Fiction?

Talking with the director of Not Working Today

by So Young Chang

Abu Ahasan is a Bangladeshi construction worker in Singapore whose boss has withheld payment from his employees for several months. Unwilling to tolerate this situation any further, Abu gathers testimonies from his co-workers and jots them down in his notebook. One morning, he fakes being sick and instead of getting into the lorry, he gets into a city bus to pay a visit to the Ministry of Manpower. Written as such, the premise may seem rather straightforward. But as the opening scenes to Shijie Tan’s short film Not Working Today, the story of Abu’s day off holds a dramatic power that captivated an audience at a civil society event showcasing art about and by migrant workers. As people made their way out of the cinema, there was a collective buzz about the film, as well as about other segments such as a poetry reading from a migrant worker. “It might be a bit of preaching to the choir,” Shijie says in humble response to the reception it got at the event. But there is something special about the communal experience of watching a film in a darkened theatre, in how it can evoke our empathy for strangers and also offer social commentary about a system that is just “not working”.

Abu also happens to be the actor’s real name, and the story he acted out could easily have been his own. Shijie met him at Dibashram, which is a resting space in Little India for migrant workers run by the publisher of the only Bangladeshi newspaper in Singapore. While no longer in session, there used to be troupes of migrant workers who would perform plays once every few months. There you could feel the same conviction for how arts and entertainment could bring people together through shared emotions. Locals would come by to watch the plays and even without subtitles, everyone understood what they were about. In one particular play, Abu was playing the role of a jester and he had a special quality about him that caught Shijie’s eye. Not Working Today was filmed during Abu’s last three weeks in Singapore as he waited for his medical claims to be settled and two days after the end of filming, he returned to Bangladesh.

By the time he made the film, Shijie had spent six months volunteering with TWC2, a migrant worker support and advocacy organization in Singapore. Still in film school at the time, he was compelled to do something after reading an article about the treatment of migrant workers. While he felt strongly about reacting to injustice, he does not subscribe to the term ‘activist’ because it would be reductive in his role as a filmmaker. For one, there is no single cause that he feels committed to as an individual, and furthermore he does not think that one should make art to dictate ethics or moral statements.

“I’m inviting people to complete film. Typically how I think about it is you want to show them just enough for them to be interested, and give them the necessary tools to make their own decisions about the situations that they’ve just seen.”

The focus on provoking thought and sparking conversation is a core driver of what motivates him to make films. What the medium allows for is the space to engage with the human being on the screen, where you can be intensely interested in the well-being of someone else, and in that process, see yourself become a little kinder and a little more humanist.

This work of presenting human emotion and experience requires a lot of care, especially when dealing with subject matter that involves a social justice element. As a filmmaker, there is a fine line between feeling compelled to act and making use of the material. Ultimately, it comes down to having integrity and thoughtfulness from the moment you approach a topic and maintaining it throughout the storytelling. For example, if he had made a film that purely blamed society, it would have been a disservice to the migrant worker community.

“My job when I think of dramatic scenarios is to find the most appropriate, most dramatic, and most human thing to put on the screen. These three things don’t always settle on one thing, and they might be in separate directions sometimes. But when you do find something that pulls them all together, it’s quite special. So my job is to find those things and put it on the screen.”

Where power imbalances abound, the best one can hope for is to open up small pockets of exchange where people can start to listen to each other more. Unlike activists, the difficulty for artists, as Shijie says, is to express a message in a way that doesn’t involve him just telling you what he thinks.

As he wrapped up the film editing process and submitted a rough first cut to the faculty (after all, this was a school assignment), the Little India riots happened. The precise timeline was this: a week after submitting the finished product, he was called in to hear the evaluation, and the night before was when the events unfolded that changed society in ways both minute and profound. This sequence of events coloured the entire proceedings that followed and he was vindicated in the worst way possible that this was an urgent issue.

Not Working Today, it’s fictionalized, but is it fiction?”

Three years after the film was made, the story of Abu still rings true. Where the line between fiction and documentary blurs, the artist positions himself, hoping to communicate something that will eventually make life better for some. For the filmmaker, “you don’t need to think up stories, just look around.”

Abu is not working today. 

Not Working Today won Best Singapore Short Film at the Silver Screen Awards at the 2014 Singapore International Film Festival. It was screened at HealthServe’s event, Builder, Father, Poet at the Projector on August 14, 2016.

So Young Chang has recently finished a 3 month internship with Migrating out of Poverty based at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore.