Dipa Swaminathan has come a long way since that rainy day in 2015, when she came across migrant workers struggling to shield themselves from the rain using only garbage bags. After convincing the workers’ employer to buy them proper raincoats, she decided to start It’s Raining Raincoats, a community initiative to improve the welfare of migrant workers here, which earned her a President’s Award for Philanthropy and Volunteerism in 2017.
The assistant general counsel of Singtel and mother of two grew up in India but has called Singapore home for the past 25 years. To her, integrating migrant workers into our society is crucial not just for them but for Singaporeans too, because it will result in greater social cohesiveness. It’s Raining Raincoats is powered by 500 volunteers — and a 26,000-strong following on Facebook — who hail from around the world.
How does being Singaporean allow you to better embrace diversity and inclusivity?
Singapore is extremely easy to integrate into. People from all parts of the world gather here and it feels so Western yet it’s Asian. I never felt that I don’t belong because of its inclusivity. It’s with that same spirit that I was led to extend a helping hand to our migrant worker friends, many of whom have been here for more than 10 years and have become part of us. It’s important they feel at home here too.
What have you learnt about our migrant worker friends through your work with It’s Raining Raincoats?
For what little they have, they are very grateful and always so willing to help. One day, one of them came to my house to collect a donor’s gift. Before he left, he offered my mother, who is 86, a joyride in his truck because that’s the only thing he had to offer in return.
Many of them are not illiterate; they are, for instance, graduates and engineers in their home country. They are very bright and may be here because life dealt them an unfair hand. They can be charming, humorous, cheeky, funny and very grateful! Our team members receive the loveliest messages. Most days, I wake up with 10 to 12 “Good morning Mdm!” and photos. On Mother’s Day, our phones didn’t stop buzzing with their thank you notes. Some of them even came to volunteer with us.
Most memorable experience?
Some months ago, one of them had a baby in India and I was the first person he told because he wanted me to name his child. Oh, Raju Sarker, the first Bangladeshi worker who contracted Covid-19 in Singapore, called me to say thank you after his discharge from ICU. His wife was pregnant then, so we decided to send her gifts in Bangladesh, and she called too.
Why is it so important to encourage inclusivity in our society?
I’d recommend everyone watch Salary Day by migrant worker Ramasamy Madhavan on his YouTube channel Madhavan R. The short film tells how migrant workers here put their life and limbs at risk just for a basic wage of $18 a day, and sheds light on their hopes and struggles. They often don’t speak up for themselves or highlight any unfair treatment, mainly because they fear it will lead to their work permits getting cancelled and they’ll be sent home. Our workers have bore the brunt of the Covid-19 crisis. At the peak of the outbreak in April, It’s Raining Raincoats was getting 600 to 700 calls and messages for help a day. Migrant workers have contributed so much to our skyline, so we can all afford a smile and a little act of kindness to them.
What can we do to help?
Message us on Facebook to join activities we’ve posted about. But please come with a fairly good idea of what you want to do by Googling about our work first, because educating new volunteers takes our time away from helping migrant workers. People can teach English, donate food or necessities. My son, for instance, is teaching a migrant worker English and helping to coordinate our activities.
This story first appeared in the August 2020 issue of A Magazine.