National Day Dipa Swaminathan

When Covid-19 hit our foreign workers hard in March this year, there was one woman right in the thick of things with them – Dipa Swaminathan, the founder of migrant worker non-profit group It’s Raining Raincoats (IRR). She started the organisation in 2015 to highlight the efforts of the country’s migrant workers and, at the same time, increase society’s compassion for them.

“It made our work non-stop,” she says. “We opened up our helplines just as it began to hit them, so many of us have not had a good night’s sleep since.” Many of the initiatives IRR had started pre-pandemic continued, like helping with salary claims and providing care packs, snack packs and data card top-ups, the last of which greatly helped foreign workers to stay connected despite being in isolation. Others came about during the lockdown.

They included a collaboration with the Singapore Medical Society of Ireland that resulted in an online booklet (in several languages) to help migrant workers with their mental health, and the MadWish Programme, which has volunteers teaching English to migrant workers remotely. “We’ve just partnered The British Council and have close to 500 teachers now,” says Swaminathan. “It’s become an avenue through which Singaporeans can connect with the migrant workers one to one.

“I have always sympathised with those who don’t have a voice to speak up for themselves.”

In addition, they also become a friendly voice or a buddy, someone the workers can talk to about their fears and worries, so it serves many purposes.” Indeed, Swaminathan is known for handing out her number to workers and encouraging them to call her with their problems. “Migrant workers are probably the most vulnerable and least privileged community in this country,” she says. It is clear that her compassion springs from the same spirit that fuels her quest for justice, a quest that, not surprisingly, led her to become a Harvard-trained lawyer and an advocate for the disadvantaged.

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A Helping Hand

“From as far back as I can remember, I have always sympathised with those who don’t have a voice to speak up for themselves.” Looking back on the whirlwind that has been the last few months, “I realised that anything is possible with the right people,” she muses, while acknowledging that the pandemic brought a lot of attention to the cause, leading to a doubling of her volunteer numbers as well as support from a wide range of groups – from schools and churches to restaurants and law firms.

The other aspect that keeps her going are the many instances when things fell into place so perfectly that it gave her goosebumps. For instance, the day when the donor care pack pipeline seemed to dry up was the day that a large MNC e-mailed to confirm that it would step in. Then, there was the time when 10 minutes after a worker asked about carrom boards, a group of NUS students incidentally donated the game. “Taking calls, getting food, putting all the pieces together – it’s been a huge toll on all of us,” she says. “But all these stories help us believe that we are on the right track – and that the universe is conspiring with us.”

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Dipa Swaminathan Never Too Old
A known advocate for migrant workers, Dipa Swaminathan is an assistant general counsel for SingTel by day.

Never Too Old

“During the crisis, my 86-year-old mother decided that she would do something to raise money for migrant workers. So once a week on Tuesdays, she wakes up at 4am to cook multiple orders of one dish, and all the sale proceeds go towards helping the workers. She plans for it days in advance and gets about 50 orders a week. She even has a Facebook page called Janaki’s Kitchen. She feels great that she can do something with her own hands. Hopefully, this inspires older people because helping others really can give them a sense of purpose and so much joy.”

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Photography: Vee Chin