At Home?


The country training people to leave


The Philippines has one of the fastest growing economies in Asia - but there aren't enough jobs to go around. So every year the government teaches thousands of people the skills they need to get jobs abroad.

When I arrive at the state-run Housemaids Academy in Manila morning exercises are well under way. A squad of uniformed cleaners is poking feather dusters into all corners of the sitting room. In the kitchen trainee cooks are immersed in the finer points of salad preparation.

The academy has the feel of a soap-opera set - each room meticulously dressed to ape the reality of a grand residence. Below stairs is a classroom filled with old fashioned school desks. Here, I'm told, the trainee house servants take lessons in hygiene, respect and personal finance.

The Philippines government schools tens of thousands of maids, chauffeurs, mechanics and gardeners every year, with the express purpose of launching them into long-term service abroad.

For the state it's a win-win. These economic exiles - there are are currently some 10 million of them - send back foreign currency which is the lifeblood of the Filipino economy. And the extraordinary exodus of labour acts as a safety valve in a country struggling to provide home-grown jobs for a population rising by more than two million every year.

"We are proud of what we are doing," one of the trainee maids, Maria, tells me. "We are national heroes." That was a phrase first coined in a government propaganda campaign, and it's clear that the 20 young women now gathered around me - all immaculately uniformed and polite to a fault - desperately want it to be true.

"It can't be easy leaving your families behind," I suggest.

"We have no choice," replies Evelyn, an elfin figure no more than 5ft tall. "I have a baby at home but no way to support him. The wages I earn in Kuwait will mean my mother can raise him."

Many of the other trainees nod in sympathy - almost all, it seems, are facing the prospect of separation from their children for at least three years, possibly many more. Their reality will be prolonged servitude in an alien culture.

The mood in the academy has darkened. Half the young women before me are now weeping.

Alongside the remittances of overseas workers, there's a new phenomenon keeping the Philippines economy afloat. It's known as BPO, business process outsourcing - you could call it the rise of the call centre economy. More and more Western companies have moved their low-cost back-office operations to the Philippines.

"We've overtaken India," Dyne Tubbs, a manager at Transcom call centres, boasts as we survey her army of Filipino telephonists handling calls on behalf of a UK parcels delivery company. It's midnight in Manila, 4pm in London and the phones are red hot, as they will be until dawn.

"British companies love us because our English is not accented. The brightest graduates from our universities fight to get a job here. We only take the smartest kids. And after we've finished training them they even get your British sarcasm," says Tubbs.

One third of the Filipino population is under 15 years old. The country may have found a unique niche in the global economy but current rates of economic growth, though impressive, will not sustain a population projected to double from 100 to 200 million within 30 years. Which is why Jane Judilla may just hold the key to the Philippines economic future. Jane isn't an entrepreneur or a politician, she's a reproductive health worker who spends her days in some of Manila's most squalid slums.

Thanks to a law pushed through by the government last year, she's now permitted to offer the poorest Filipinos free access to condoms, the contraceptive pill, even sterilisation for women who want it. The Catholic Church, which commands the loyalty of 90% of Filipinos, fought the initiative tooth and nail but the clerics lost.

Judilla introduces me to Sheralyn Gonzales, a whey-faced woman of 30 with 10 children and another on the way. I ask Gonzales whether she's happy. "I'll be happy when I've had the baby and can get sterilised," she says. "My eldest has dropped out of school, and we can barely afford to educate the others. I tell my children to have two kids, then use contraception."

If the next generation of Gonzales's heed her advice their country's future is promising. If not, tens of millions of young Filipinos may find themselves stuck in a poverty trap, still dependent on overseas labour as a means of escape.

You can watch HARDtalkon the road in the Philippines on Tuesday 10 March on BBC World News at 04:30, 09:30, 16:30 and 21:30 GMT. It's also on the BBC News Channel at 00:30 and 04:30 GMT. You can catch up later on the BBC iPlayer.

For more on the BBC's A Richer World, go to

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Australian PM criticised for remarks on remote communities


Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been criticised for suggesting that people living in indigenous communities are making a "lifestyle choice".

Visiting Western Australia, Mr Abbott said the government could not "endlessly subsidise" those that chose not to fit in with wider society.

He has previously said he supports the planned closure of up to 150 remote communities in Western Australia.

Critics have called the remarks "offensive" and "inappropriate".

It was announced in September that the federal government would transfer responsibility for funding Indigenous Australian communities to individual states.

Australia's remote Indigenous communities

• There are about 250 indigenous communities in Western Australia, home to about 15,000 people. Some have as few as five people, others have as many as 500.

• Most are in the Kimberley region in the far north of Western Australia - the government there plans to close as many as 150 of the smallest communities, saying they are not financially viable.

• Many are powered by diesel generators, rely on bore water and have no paved roads. The bigger communities have a general store, a school and sometimes a health clinic.

• Some of the communities are on ancestral lands, others are on the sites of old welfare missions.

Speaking to ABC Radio on a visit to Kalgoorlie on Tuesday, Mr Abbott said that Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett was right to close nearly half the state's 274 remote communities if the cost of providing services to them outweighed the benefits.

"What we can't do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have," Mr Abbott said.

"Fine, by all means live in a remote location, but there's a limit to what you can expect the state to do for you if you want to live there."


The chair of the government's Indigenous Advisory Council, Warren Mundine, told the BBC that Mr Abbott's comments had angered indigenous communities and diverted attention away from a serious discussion about reforms in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander areas.

"I'm a bit nervous about the word 'close'; when you say that to Aboriginal people in Australia, the hair stands up on the back of their necks because it has an historical premise, because we were forced off our land in 1930s and 1940s," he said.

"People are living in these communities not because of lifestyle choices but because of very strong cultural and religious reasons. People have got to understand that for indigenous people in Australia, their country is the essence of their being."

Mick Gooda, the social justice commissioner for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) communities, said it was "a poor choice of words".

He told Australia's ABC that indigenous people understood there were problems with funding remote communities but wanted to be consulted on how to solve the problem.

Labor's Indigenous Affairs spokesman Shayne Neumann called the comments a "disgrace".

"Here he is saying that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be evicted from the lands on which they've lived for millennia," he told ABC.

"He really is a disgrace and he really should apologise unreservedly for these comments," he added.

'Very real question'

Mr Abbott defended his remarks in a press conference on Wednesday, telling reporters there were "limits to what we can reasonably expect of the taxpayer".

"I'm very comfortable with my credentials when it comes to doing the right thing by the Aboriginal people of Australia," he said, and referred to his commitment to spending one week every year governing from a remote community.

Cabinet ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey defended the prime minister's remarks.

Mr Turnbull, the minister for communications touted as a leadership rival to Mr Abbott, said the prime minister had "a very good understanding" of Indigenous Australia and had been the victim of a "let's-give-Tony-Abbott-a-belting occasion".

Australia's constitution does not recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the nation's first people.

In recent years there have been discussions about changing the constitution to recognise indigenous people and outlaw discrimination against them.

Mr Abbott said in December he would "sweat blood" to secure a referendum on the change.

Indigenous Australians represent about 2.5% of Australia's 24 million people. Generations of discrimination and disadvantage have left them with poor health and low levels of education and employment.


Australia's remote indigenous communities fear closure


Derby Aboriginal elder Lorna Hudson was a child when government authorities in the 1960s moved her people from tiny Sunday Island off the remote north-west coast of Western Australia to the mainland.

For a time most of the Sunday Island "saltwater" people lived on a reserve in the outback town of Derby, recalls Ms Hudson.

Later many moved to the coastal community of One Arm Point, 200km north of the resort town of Broome, where they resumed traditional hunting and fishing.

Their dislocation is an experience shared by many Indigenous Australians who were forced off their land, last century, either because of changes in government policy or lack of employment.

"That's how people lost their culture," says Ms Hudson. "It put us in a different environment, away from our country."

In the wake of plans by the West Australian government to close many small indigenous communities, the people of One Arm Point and other remote indigenous communities fear history might soon be repeated.

Comments earlier this week by Prime Minister Tony Abbott that people had made a "lifestyle choice" to live in these communities have intensified local fears people will be forced out of their homes, many of which are on ancestral land.

Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett last year announced that up to 150 of the state's estimated 250 remote indigenous communities might be closed.

His government had accepted an offer from the federal government to assume responsibility for the communities in return for A$90m ($68m, £46m) in funding but then decided it did not have enough money to keep them all open.

The state government says many of these communities - some with as few as five people and few facilities or infrastructure - are not financially viable. It estimates that in one case it is spending A$85,000 per person per year on essential services such as power and running water.

Indigenous leaders say there has been no formal evaluation by the government of the costs and no consultation with the people who live there about what they need or expect.

The premier also says there is a darker shadow hanging over some of the communities: levels of abuse and neglect of children that are "a disgrace to this state".

'Really creepy'

Similar concerns led to the controversial closure over a couple of years of the Oombulgurri community in the eastern Kimberley region of Western Australia.

A coronial inquiry found the township to be in a state of crisis, with high rates of suicide, sexual abuse, child neglect and domestic violence.

But many of the people living in Oombulgurri didn't want to leave, says Amnesty International's Australian Indigenous Peoples' Rights Manager, Tammy Solonec.

As the government gradually closed vital facilities such as the health clinic, school and police station, and eventually shut off the town's power and water, people were left with no choice but to move out, says Ms Solonec.

When she visited the town last September there was a ghostly atmosphere of abandonment.

Children's drawings were still pinned to school walls, family photos were inside some of the houses, clothes were lying on the ground.

"It was really creepy," recalls Ms Solonec. "There was a suitcase just sitting in the middle of the road... and there were wild horses running around.

"There were clear signs people were not given time to retrieve their belongings before they left. And now they are gone it's almost impossible to come back."

Many of Oombulgurri's residents moved to the town of Wyndham, putting pressure on that town's services and infrastructure, a ripple affect Amnesty International and others say could be seen across the Kimberley if more communities are closed down.

Kimberley Land Council Chief Executive Officer Nolan Hunter says Mr Abbott's comments, and the move to close communities, contradict the whole point of native title, which recognises the rights and interests of indigenous people to land and waters according to their traditional laws and customs.

"It's inconsistent with all the commitments Australia has made to indigenous people, especially native title's acknowledgement of cultural connection to the land and people's right to be there," he says.

Mr Abbott's key indigenous advisor Warren Mundine concedes communities have to be realistic about how much government money is spent on isolated communities.

But he says government has to understand that for indigenous people "their country is the essence of their being so that's why they live in these areas".

Repeat of history

Former Liberal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Fred Chaney agrees that the viability of communities needs to be examined but he says there is an element of hypocrisy when one considers the many subsidies paid to non-Indigenous Australians living in remote areas.

"On that sort of measure, [the Northern Territory city of] Darwin is not sustainable," he recently told ABC TV.

He warns the closures could be "catastrophic" if Western Australia repeats the mistakes of the 1960s when indigenous people were left to flounder on the outskirts of outback towns when they were kicked off pastoral lands after being granted the right to equal pay.

Organisations representing 35 communities around the small Kimberley town of Fitzroy Crossing say Western Australia's closure plans are "the latest and most dramatic twist in what has felt like a war of attrition against our communities".

"We assert the right of people to live in and on their traditional country, for which they have ancient and deep responsibilities. To be talking of relocating people off their traditional country does indeed take us back 50 years in a very ugly way," they said in a statement. "Do not turn our people into fringe dwellers once again."

Back at One Arm Point, home to about 400 people, culture "begins and ends on the land and with the sea", says community leader Dean Gooda.

Mr Gooda says its residents, like those in indigenous communities across Western Australia, are anxious about the future, with no official word on which communities will close and under what criteria.

"It would be tragic for them to have to move off," he says.

"It doesn't matter who you are. If you're an Australian, you should be afforded essential services like everyone else. That's all we are asking for, the same services that mainstream Australians are afforded as a right, as a given, as a matter of course."


The country where you can choose your tax rate


Mali currently has two rates of income tax - 30%... or 3%. Quite a difference. So the BBC's Alex Duval Smith was surprised to be offered a choice when she went to register at her local tax office in Bamako.

Outside the yellow concrete building, a man is tethering a ram to the railings. It's not an uncommon sight; he has probably just bought the animal and has an errand at the tax office on his way home.

Inside, a row of cashiers are seated behind aluminium-framed thick glass. Each has large handbag plonked on the counter. Each bag is a different colour. Mali, for all its poverty and problems, is always hitting you with moments of accidental beauty.

But the cashiers' eyes are glazed over from inactivity. The International Monetary Fund believes Mali has the potential to improve its revenue-raising by 20%. It's not happening in here.

My mission - to register as a tax payer - takes me round the back of the cashiers, to Mrs Yattara's shoe box office. She shares it with three colleagues. There's a handbag on each desk. There's a computer, too. It's used to print out pro-forma tax declaration forms. But all the data is copied in to stacks of exercise books. Some in red ink, some in blue.

I first met Mrs Yattara, a smart woman with glasses, during the annual tax census. This is when the entire staff, bearing clipboards, leaves the office to search the neighbourhood for more tax payers.

There's always one casualty - an unlucky shopkeeper who gets closed down as an example to the others. This year a soft-drink seller was presented with a tax bill of 80,000 CFA francs - that's about $160 dollars or £100 - and when he couldn't pay, they padlocked his shop. After a week he offered to pay half the amount and added a few crates of orange squash for the tax staff. Problem solved.

Mrs Yattara leads me to her boss, Mr Kante. He has an office all to himself, and offers me a seat... a seat from which I can hardly see him. Tax rule books and copies of Finance Ministry decrees are piled into turrets all around his desk. He asks me questions about my expenses as a freelance journalist. It's unnerving because he is writing things down but I can't see what.

''You have the choice between two income tax regimens, 30% or 3%, which shall it be?''

''Oh well... err 3%?'' I venture. ''Three per cent it is," he says, adding: "Now we'll have to go and see my boss.''

This doesn't faze me. Hierarchy is everything in Mali. In the course of settling everyday matters I have already met the managing directors of Mali's water and electricity boards and of the post office. I imagine that it's so rare for someone to walk off the street and offer to pay income tax that the boss would want to meet that person.

Mr Kantako's office is enormous, with chairs lining three walls. That's normal too, because in hierarchical Mali, people move around in delegations. The meeting involves a lot of niceties. Curiously, I am expected to provide the British government's position on the demands from Tuareg rebels for self-rule in northern Mali.

''Err... Britain just wants peace,'' I say, limply. All my energy is going on trying to suppress my delight at paying 3% income tax.

''Now then.'' The tax boss asks Mr Kante to brief him about my case. Both men pore over a calculator and come up with a figure of 236,160 francs ($380, £260).

''Hmm, I would like to have seen a rounder figure,'' says Mr Kantako eventually. ''And the pound is strong - I think we would like 300,000 francs ($485, £327) from you.'' He gives me the same open look as you get when buying almost anything in Mali. As much as to say: "That's my offer what's yours?"

''Oh, and we'll want that in cash,'' he says, "but you will be given a receipt."

Mr Kante offers some explanation as we go back downstairs. ''Eighty per cent of Mali's economy is informal," he says. "The government believes the 3% rate will attract more tax payers. What people don't realise is that, as things stand, we struggle to raise 1% or 2%. So this new rate represents something of an increase!''

By that reckoning, the Malian tax authorities have actually done quite well out of me.

Perhaps because I had - strangely - volunteered to pay tax, a basic sense of fairness stood in the way of the staff putting me into the 30% bracket, where perhaps I belong.

As I leave, so does the man with the ram. Except the ram remains tied to the railings.

''Monsieur!'' I call out. He turns around.

''Your ram?''

He shakes his head. "No, no, I've had to give it to them," he says matter-of-factly, and walks away.


Why not nanny people about healthy diet?


Poor diet is the leading modifiable risk factor for ill health in the UK.

That is not the grandiose claim of a nutrition evangelist - it's the verdict from the Global Burden of Disease Study.

This found that more than 12% of the burden of ill health was attributable to dietary risk factors. And if we add the risk from being overweight too, it's more than 20%.

On average in the UK, we eat too many calories, too much saturated fat, sugar and salt and too little fibre.

If people ate more healthily, more than 33,000 premature deaths could be prevented each year.

We've been talking about the problem for ages, but so far we have seen only very modest changes.

Public confusion about the messages doesn't help - witness the latest debate which pitches fat against sugar when the science tells us clearly that both are of concern.

NHS chief executive Simon Stevens has stressed the need to focus on preventing disease to ensure the future viability of the NHS - and the general economy.

But despite widespread acceptance of the mantra "prevention is better than cure", prevention remains the Cinderella of medicine.

Investment needed

The shift we need to make in our approach to healthcare is fundamental and it is going to take real investment in prevention now to reduce treatment costs later.

Research into effective interventions is vital to give us confidence that investment in prevention will reap the dividends in terms of improvements in health.

So what do we know now about how to change eating habits?

Most people do know that fruit and vegetables are good for you, and sweets are not.

But we are surprisingly poor at putting our knowledge of a healthy diet into practice.

Although we like to think of ourselves as rational, intelligent people who make good decisions, research shows much of our behaviour in relation to food or indeed physical activity, is not a conscious, deliberative act.

Rather, it is an automatic response, shaped by the circumstances in which we find ourselves and the environment and social cues that surround us.

If we restructure the environment, can we nudge the nation to better health?

Compromise for benefits?

But why stop there? Paternalists will argue that we could quickly make progress towards a healthier diet with more draconian policies.

Look at the success of the wartime rationing policy they argue - people were healthier and social inequalities narrowed.

But in 21st Century Britain how far are we prepared to compromise personal or commercial freedoms to benefit society at large?

This discussion is not one for the scientists alone - it's for everyone.

Condition linked to being overweight:
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Arthritis
  • Indigestion
  • Gallstones
  • Some cancers (including breast and prostate)
  • Snoring and sleep apnoea
  • Stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Infertility

To date, the mainstay of policy has been on increasing knowledge, and encouraging greater personal responsibility for the food we eat.

This is necessary, but it's not sufficient, we need to change the environment too so that the automatic choices we make are healthier too. We can't rely wholly on rational decision-making.

What are the options? The UK food industry is a world leader in terms of cutting fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt in products, but there is more that needs to be done so the rest are as good as the best.

But if the goal is to cut calories, a more appropriate option in many cases will be to reduce portion size - which of course cuts fat and sugar at the same time, while retaining the authentic composition and taste of foods.

Impact of promotion

We need also to tackle the promotion of foods and drink high in fat, sugar and salt, but a major challenge for public health research is to identify what action is likely to be most effective.

Take, for example, the case of the multi-buy ban on alcohol in Scotland. It sounded a good opportunity to cut alcohol consumption, but sales were virtually unaffected.

In contrast, our research shows that product placement in-store is crucial to shaping choices.

Placing alcoholic beverages at the end of shopping aisles produced the same increase in sales as a 4% price discount on beer or a 22% discount on soft drinks.

It seems plausible that we could reduce these "nudges" to overconsumption of unhealthy foods.

But the research so far is less clear that we can rely solely on nudge tactics to secure a positive shift towards healthier items.

What about food beyond the supermarket door?

Research shows there are more fast-food outlets in deprived areas, and people with the most takeaways close to home are almost twice as likely to be obese than those with the fewest outlets.

Interestingly this is one area where there does seem to be a public appetite for change, especially to protect children from excessive exposure to junk food.

We have seen some local authorities use planning law to introduce zoning policies to control the density of food outlets.

Schools, too, are using mandatory standards for food, including a complete ban on sugary drinks and confectionery.

But overall, food policy is patchy and inconsistent and there are lots we are not doing.

We know that food advertising has a powerful effect - but only restrict the content of television adverts for a small period each day.

Little attention is paid to other forms of advertising, from cartoon characters on cereal boxes to sponsorship of sport and the arts by food companies offering foods high in fat, sugar and salt.

We set standards for food in schools, but do little to control food provision in other public institutions - many hospital concourses are full of fast-food chains and vending machines.

Tax option

One area where it is hard to deny the evidence case for action is tax.

Tax is an established part of alcohol and tobacco control policies and now seems to be working in some countries which have introduced health-related taxes on food.

For instance, a 10% tax on sugary drinks in Mexico led to a 10% drop in sales.

I suspect political reticence in Britain is borne out of anxiety about public opinion.

But given the scale of diet-related ill health facing us can we afford not to act?

A key assumption of modern politics is that we should be free to live as we like without being nagged.

Yet most of us choose to set rules for ourselves even if we don't often think of them as imposed rules.

So might we also accept our agents - in this case government - setting rules - laws - on our behalf if they help enact things we want to achieve but struggle to do alone?

We could, for example, frame rules which harness food promotion for public good, rather than solely commercial advantage.

I would be rather pleased if there was a rule which prevented people proffering cheap chocolate when I only wanted to buy a newspaper!

We are asking a lot of individuals if we expect them to take full and very personal responsibility for making healthier choices, while elsewhere condoning a food system that provides and promotes the less healthy.


Rebuilding Taloa after Cyclone Pam


A small boat darts across calm clear waters heading to a distant volcanic island in Vanuatu. As the engine roars, the devastation on Nguna gradually appears.

Most of the trees on its steep ridges have been stripped of vegetation or wrenched out of the earth by Cyclone Pam.

We are travelling from the northern part of the main island, Efate, to visit villages that have yet to receive any support from the world beyond these clear seas.

In Taloa, buildings on the beach have been no match for the maximum category five storm, neither have houses a short walk from the coast.

The home of an elderly woman is in ruins; its steel roof a mangled mess, while a lifetime of belongings and furniture are strewn across the ground.

The owner is living with a neighbour, but this depressing scene is repeated across the island, and beyond.

"This is probably the worst cyclone I have experienced," says Taloa village chief, Donald Manamena, who works for Vanuatu's meteorological service. "We will need fresh water and we will need food."

He estimates that the community has enough water to last about a week, while crops have also been wrecked, robbing the village of its main source of income.

Fruit and vegetable gardens that once flourished in rich soil have been left in ruins, leaving islanders with nothing to sell at markets in the capital, Port Vila.

Tourists come here, too, to marvel at the dramatic volcanic scenery, or to dive and snorkel. But locals fear the reefs have been damaged, and that another part of a wounded economy has been temporarily lost.

It is a hot, humid day, and reconstruction work has already begun, but it is slow going. Materials are scarce.

John, a father of four, takes a break from his hard labour trying to repair the family home with meagre supplies. Sweat pours down his face.

"I need iron roofing and a tarpaulin to cover my house, and cement to rebuild," he said.

"We have no more water now," he added, and told me that his main worry was sickness among the children.

A week ago this would have looked like paradise; lush fields full of food sustaining a thriving seaside community. Now the village is littered with fallen branches, twisted metal and smashed timber.

Sodden schoolbooks are placed on the floor to dry but when classes can resume is unclear. Rosaleen, a French teacher, says that the children were sent home before the storm struck. "When we told them the cyclone was coming they were very afraid," she says

Her relatives live to the south on Tanna island, but their fate remains unknown. "I don't know anything about my family but I have been told the cyclone has spoiled my home island. I am very upset and sorry. I do not know what to do."

It is a frustration that is widely shared.

Communications to many outlying parts of the archipelago have been cut, and the full extent of the destruction could take at least another week to emerge.

On Nguna, they hope that assistance will soon come as the international relief operation fans out across the island chain.

"We believe that the Vanuatu government is going to do something with our needs," says Leiwia Norman, a former librarian. "In the meantime we have to look after ourselves, our families."

An unknown number of communities elsewhere are facing similar privations and uncertainties, but here, there is a dogged determination.

"I think we are coping very well," says chief Manamena. "But we will need outside help. There is nothing on the land right now that people can earn money from."

Life has been stripped back to the basics: the need for food, water and shelter, along with the support of extended family. The villages on Nguna will be rebuilt with communal sweat, but they can't do it alone.

Elders say that normality will eventually return to this once idyllic corner of Vanuatu, and there are some positive signs.

As we leave, a group of young boys take to the surf on boards fashioned by pieces of wood from damaged homes. Their screams of delight eventually fade as their home retreats into the distant behind us.

It is, at least, some light relief for a community that, like others, will have to rebuild from scratch.


Singapore's construction worker poets


Away from their home and families for years at a time, more than 100,000 Bangladeshi men live and work in Singapore. They come here because they can make more money working in the construction or shipping industries then at home. When they are not in hard hats, some of them compose verse that expresses what their life is like here.

Sharif takes the stage before a small crowd of poetry enthusiasts, his voice full of emotion as the Bengali words roll off his tongue.

The heart erodes in lament. And the game of war begins. And so begins the deluge.

Deep inside the heart, with a mournful cry in the guise of valour, I return to this hellpit. The realisation of dreams begins. The journey begins.

The audience, enthralled, listen to a voice not often heard in the performance spaces of Singapore, that of a migrant worker.

"I have bared my own feelings in this poem; what kind of obstacles I face as a worker," says Sharif.

The construction safety supervisor left his wife and son in Bangladesh in 2009 for a job in Singapore because he could make more money here.

He paid thousands in "recruitment and training fees" to an agent and now lives in shared accommodation earning S$1,500 ($1,080, £728) a month, most of which he sends back home.

He started writing poetry because he didn't have a lot of friends when he arrived, and it helped him through the monotony of his life.

"When I first came to Singapore I felt somewhat suffocated. I couldn't do anything but work. Work, then to my room, back to work again and room again," he says.

That's what brought him to a small community centre in the part of Singapore known as Little India.

AKM Mohsin, who runs a Bengali language newspaper Banglar Kantha, set up the centre called Dibashram in 2011 to give the workers a space of their own.

Every Sunday, their day off, Bengali workers gather here to practise theatre and recite poetry.

"My view is that if they are involved in cultural activities they don't go and spend their hard-earned money on bad things," he says, citing gambling, going to bars and girlfriends as examples.

Mohsin, along with other volunteers from migrant worker NGOs, encouraged those who came to the centre to write poems and submit them for the competition.

"I think it makes local people realise migrant workers are not only workers, they also have feelings," says Mohsin.

Samuel Lee, a 23-year-old literature student at the National University of Singapore, was at the public recital.

"I've not heard these voices before," he says, describing migrant workers as marginalised figures in Singapore.

"But when [their] experience is put into words, you are able to empathise, you can put yourself in their shoes."

The poetry is exposing Singaporeans to the lives of the migrants, who take up difficult, undesirable jobs here.

Poor, dirty, dangerous and "humsup", a Cantonese word meaning lecherous, were the four words that Singaporeans came up with when asked their thoughts on migrant workers in 2013, says Debbie Fordyce from advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).

And a riot later in 2013 in Little India involving migrant workers - linked to the death of a worker - led to more negative perceptions.

Bangladeshi migrant workers
  • Migrant workers from Bangladesh often go into debt to pay up about S$10,000 in recruitment and training fees to agents to get to Singapore
  • Once here their passports and often work permits are held by their employers, who can repatriate them at any time
  • Seventy-five per cent make less than S$24 a day, according to UK Department for International Development
  • Accommodation, provided by some employers, can be unsanitary and overcrowded. Many complain about the quality of food.

For most of these men, however, the hardest part is being away from their families.

Zakir Hussain, the winner of the poetry competition, left his father, wife and son to come and work in construction in Singapore in 2003.

"When I work I miss them, when I sleep also I miss them," he says.

He says he wrote his poems for the competition during his journey home from work on a transport bus.

"When I do hard work, I need refreshment, so I recite some poems from my book," he says. "I carry my poetry in my mind and in my heart."

Zakir, a freelance journalist in Dhaka, says he came to Singapore because his family was struggling financially.

His poem speaks of the places in Dhaka he misses, where he would spend hours with his wife and son.

Still in the same world, we belong to different spheres. You on that side and me on this. We can do nothing but remember each other.

I remember when I returned this time, my heart dissolved in your tears.

Do I really write poems, or do my poems cry with me?


  Who Owns the World?
 Who is a Migrant?
 Who Owns the Debt?
 Who's Dream?
Who Cleans Up After?
 Who Knows the way?


Project HomeFarm
Garden Diary

Trevor Batten
 <trevor at tebatt dot net>
 Baclayon 2015