Some panicked after mistaking the number of discharged coronavirus cases for the death toll. Others read reports that their home countries would be banning travellers from Singapore and tried to quit their jobs in a fluster.
With fake news spreading faster than the coronavirus itself among foreign workers, the Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC) has been relying on its network of volunteers, who are also workers themselves, to disseminate accurate information in a timely manner.
MWC executive director Bernard Menon recalled the flurry of calls from panicked Bangladeshi workers wanting to go home, after the 42nd coronavirus case, a 39-year-old Bangladeshi worker, was announced last month.
“There was a need for somebody close to the migrant-worker ground to quickly get in touch with the people and send out key messages,” he said.
The centre’s core team has about 25 people and some 5,000 foreign worker ambassadors who can potentially reach up to 125,000 people a day.
One of the ambassadors is Mr K. Deivasigamani, 35, from Tamil Nadu, India. He has been in Singapore for nearly nine years and works at a reclamation site in Tuas.
He forwards government advisories and accurate information to WhatsApp groups that include his colleagues and other foreign workers he knows.
“I explain the situation to them and tell them not to be scared. I tell them to wash their hands with soap,” said the father of two.
He also gives the workers’ feedback on issues to his supervisor, who checks with the MWC and the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for responses.
Another migrant-worker ambassador is Mr Shafikul Islam from Dhaka, Bangladesh, who works as a manager in the marine sector. The 31-year-old has been in Singapore for six years and started volunteering with the MWC last year.
He told The Sunday Times that many of his fellow Bangladeshis were worried after Case 42, involving a Bangladeshi, was announced.
“Many of them were confused. So I told them, ‘no problem, in Singapore, you can go to hospital any time, the Government will take care of you’,” he said.
The two volunteer ambassadors said the situation on the ground is much calmer now, with regard to the coronavirus situation.
Mr Menon said the MWC holds briefings in the mornings and evenings at the dormitories, where volunteers take questions in the different native languages of the workers.
The volunteers also encourage the workers to sign up to the Gov.sg WhatsApp channel in their preferred language to get the latest updates.
For now, life is carrying on as normal. While Mr Deivasigamani tries to work as much as possible on Sundays to earn more pay, Mr Shafikul spends his day off at Mustafa Centre, the department store in Little India.
“Migrant workers make up a quarter of the workforce and a fifth of the population,” said Mr Menon.
“There’s no way you can protect Singaporeans if you don’t protect migrant workers too.”