Debbie Fordyce: “They are guest workers in Singapore, I am their volunteer.”

A friend of mine from the Habitat Briskwalk group, Lee Boon Ann alerted our mailing list on 13th February 2011 about exposure in the news about fellow briskwalker Debbie Fordyce and her efforts with transient workers. He announced,

“Our TWC2 champion is in the Zaobao supplement today, her picture splashed across the cover page. The 2-page feature describes the state of our transient workers and her work with them, written beautifully in Chinese – some parts of which I find hard to translate.”

After some scramble to figure out who had the article, I grabbed the text off the Zaobao webpage B. A. had pointed me to and dropped it into Google Translate. Even after it’s literal translation (see below), the beauty of her efforts shone through.

‘”As long as I am in Singapore, I’m going to help fight for the rights of foreign guest workers. They are guest workers in Singapore, I am their volunteer.” Fu Debbie, 56, told reporters seriously.”

In his email, Boon Ann said, “I cannot help but be proud to be associated with someone like her.” You see, Debby is a caretaker of our country’s soul.

The English version of the article available below (or download the pdf) was translated by Alvin Wong on 20 Feb 2011, edited by Bashir Basalamah and fact-checked by Debbie Fordyce. This version replaced the clumsy Google Translate version I first posted and corrects some errors.

If you are able to read Chinese, you should read the pdf of the scanned article above in which the journalist waxed lyrical about Debbie’s efforts and the plight of our transient workers in much better prose. The Chinese readers amongst the briskwalkers gave it two thumbs up for the reporter’s heartfelt expression.


“Graceful brows and emerald eyes, a warm-hearted person”*
Debbie Fordyce, the foreign volunteer who helps migrant workers

By Wang Yiming.

Lianhe Zaobao, Sunday 13 February 2011.
[*A poetic pun on Debbie’s Chinese name]

“While the pungent fragrances of spices and jasmine are usual and familiar, Little India on a Sunday is more crowded than weekdays. Since Little India is the focal point of Indians, guest workers from India and Bangladesh will gather there during the weekends.

Amongst wandering tourists snapping souvenir photos in Little India, the guest workers might only be an inconspicuous background. Debbie Fordyce shared with this journalist her different perspectives on Little India and foreign guest workers, the heart-rending experiences of guest workers, the painful tears of their sojourn in a foreign land and their search for justice.

“As long as I am in Singapore, I’m going to help fight for the rights of foreign guest workers. They are guest workers in Singapore, I am their volunteer.” Debbie, 56, told me firmly.

It was particularly busy at the Isthana restaurant at Rowell Road in Little India. Many Indian and Bangladeshi guest workers were there for a free lunch. Debbie sat there dressed in festive red. Greeting us with a smile, she said: “Well, it’s Chinese New Year, we should wear red!”

Guest workers came to Debbie, one after another. She called out their names and recorded them in a roster. After a brief chat, she gave each worker a small button. The guest workers will claim a meal using the button as a token. Debbie handed them an apple as well.

“This is the least that we can do for the guest workers, to provide them with a meal, and a friend to share their woes. This might seem simple enough, but for many guest workers this exceeded their expectations.” Debbie said.

A voice for guest workers

Debbie volunteers for the NGO, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), that focuses on the welfare of domestic workers and guest workers. The meal program, known as The Cuff Road Project, has been in operation for three years.

TWC2 works with two small restaurants in Little India to provide 12 meals a week to workers awaiting resolution to their salary, illegal deployment cases, or threatment for their injuries. Sutha’s restaurant at Cuff Road provides meals on Sunday, Tuesday, and Friday while Isthana at Rowell Road does so on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday. The restaurants serve breakfast and dinner Monday through Friday, and lunch on Saturday and Sunday.

“We serve about 350-400 meals each day. We have 500-600 individuals participating in the program each month, most of them are men who’ve been injured, and another large group with salary or illegal deployment complaint. None of the men who participate are allowed to work legally, nor cared for by their companies.”

“We pay $2.00 and $2.20 for the meals, and All the donations for the program goes for food, none for overhead.”

Serving meals is only a catalyst. “We want to let guest workers know that we can do more for them and that they can share their problems and any unfair treatment with us. We can be their voice and advocate. They might be the bottom rung of society, but they should not be oppressed or abandoned because of their vulnerability” Debbie said calm voice; but I sensed a deep strength amidst the calmness.

Guest worker cases caused a heavy heart

Observing the guest workers who might otherwise not have a decent meal and chat in a restaurant, while their faces might not create deep impressions, their presence is in every corner of our city: they labor in construction sites, clean high-rise buildings, work in factories and warehouses, maintain our public facilities… they are engaged in dangerous and tough labor, their sweat and toil reflects the scorching sun.

“Guest workers shoulder the tasks that locals are unwilling to perform. However, most guest workers fail to receive the most basic humane treatment, let alone receive treatment as a guest.”

Debbie unveiled one shocking photograph after another, depicting guest workers suffering various injuries. One worker suffered a deep gash in the thigh, right to the bone, and is still receiving treatment. He was found abandoned on the roadside. Debbie said: “His boss probably expected him to die.”

“Before these migrant workers from India and Bangladesh workers arrive in Singapore looking forward to a job, they have to pay between S$8,000 to $10,000 in fees to agents in their own countries. This is an astronomical sum to these workers and their families who are already in dire economic straits. They borrow money at high interest rates, or sell their family business or land, or sell a sister’s dowry – just to get a job in Singapore, hoping to improve their family’s situation after paying off the debts.”

Some guest workers are fortunate if they are employed by a large bona fide corporation, but many people are conned by unscrupulous agents and employers, and discover that they do not have a work permit after arrival in Singapore; or that they have a job and work permit, but no salary; or that the benefits were not what they were promised. They aren’t willing to simply return to their home country after spending so much for the job.

Some of them then work illegally, or continue to work without pay just to keep the work permit; some accept the unfair treatment and swallow the injustice. Other terrible situations are encountered in work-related injuries, with employers finding ways to avoid expensive medical costs and proper compensation owed to the workers; this results in guest workers who cannot work while receiving medical treatment or sustaining some permanent incapacity as a result of the injury.

“Up to 40% of the guest workers who participate in our program have injury problems, and the rest face wages and other issues.” There was also a hint of frustration, apart from Debbie’s indignation. “Exploitation results when poor people are willing to pay for jobs. “

Debbie carries a notebook with her, with hundreds of pages documenting case histories of guest workers. As Debbie reads each case, one felt even more heavy-hearted, it became chilling even though one was exposed to the sun.

Listening to their tears and outpouring

While they were having their meal behind us, there was occasional laughter from the guest workers. Debbie said: “I hear them cry and share their predicaments, and I have cried with them. Would you believe that they are strong even under such circumstances, they can joke about themselves after crying, and are still determined to work hard for their parents, wife and children at home, and still look forward to the future every day. I think I am here to safeguard their future.”

You could not detect a sense of righteous anger against injustice within Debbie. Instead she conveyed a feeling of perpetual warmth that came from helping our fellowmen.

“Fortunately, the Government does not sit idly by, we reported many cases of injustice to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). The ministry conducted investigations, and arranges labor hearings, and provides mediation, and pursues compensation claims for the guest workers. ”

Debbie believed that recent tightening of foreign labor policy may reduce such incidents to a certain extent, but was concerned that some agents and employers will still bring in illegal workers due to the profits involved.

Singapore’s development and large-scale infrastructure construction will still rely on the contributions of guest workers. Debbie felt that it was very important to protect the legitimate rights and interests of guest workers. “Guest workers need adequate rest and decent living space, in addition to proper wages, and a convenient mechanism to change jobs. At the same time, we also hope that Singapore will sign the relevant international agreements related to foreign workers.”

December 18 is the anniversary of the signing of the “United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families”, Singapore is not a signatory to the agreement country.

The Debbie Fordyce chapter

“I’ve had a close relationship with Singapore since 1975 when I arrived from St. Louis to learn Chinese. I’ve lived in Singapore for over 30 years and have been engaged in education work much of that time. During this period, my husband passed away, and my four children grew up here. If Singapore is not home to me, I do not know where is.”

In order to integrate into Singapore society, and due to her love of Chinese culture, she had a beautiful Chinese name “Fu Dai Bi”, and she can speak fluent Mandarin.

Her four children grew up a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural in Singapore, she was pleased to say: “I’m American, my late husband was Japanese, but children living a foreign country have a interesting characteristic, they are warm and generous, and not afraid of the unfamiliar. My children have joined me to help guest workers, we often invite workers to our house for gatherings; many of them become good friends with my two sons. “

Debbie said: “I became a full-time volunteer six years ago, and was concerned with the issue of guest workers, and worked together TWC2 colleagues on guest worker rights. I worked in Singapore and Indonesia on the US Refugee Resettlement Program during the 1980s. After many years of volunteering, my feeling is that Singaporeans spent less time on volunteer work compared Westerners, and they are more dependent on groups and organizations; independent grass-roots work need to be promoted. Of course, considering the busy fast-paced life in Singapore, Singaporeans do contribute to volunteer work.” Debbie said.

“If you really do not have time or ability to work as volunteers for guest workers, you can do simple things – smile to them, you will see that they will also respond with a smile.”

At the end of the interview, Debbie joined the crowd of guest workers enjoying their lunch, and was surrounded by smiles and greetings. ”


[In the article, Debbie mentions “The United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families”. This is international agreement governs the protection of migrant workers and families. So far, there are 31 signatories. Not us as yet.]

Migrant worker rights treaty signatories

Can we chip in to support?

Yes, you can! Learn about TWC2 what they do and one thing you can do is to donate online immediately to TWC2 (sggives) or directly to The Cuff Road Project { There are no overheads so money translates to food. Macintosh users note that you should use Firefox or Camino browsers to complete the enets transaction.


  • TWC2 – Transient Workers Count Too/Dignity Overdue –
  • International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. New York, 18 December 1990. [link]

2 thoughts on “Debbie Fordyce: “They are guest workers in Singapore, I am their volunteer.”

  1. Looks like Debbie is doing good work in a cause that is oft neglected by so many of us – including me 😦 – even though it is paramount to Singapore’s socio-cultural fabric. I adopt an all embracing view of welcoming new citizens and workers to Singapore, and appreciate the help that they have given us in so many ways. In fact, I often find that they are a lot more hospitable, warm and open than our fellow Singaporeans, a fact that sometimes make me wonder what truly is the difference between “us” and “them”.

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