When I first met Akash* a few months ago, I couldn’t help but spy a slightly tarnished ring on his finger and a worn-out Blackberry in his hand. Before I could ask him how he had acquired these items, he cheerily announced that he had picked them up from the rubbish bins at the bin centre where he worked. Then, making a sweeping gesture from his T-shirt to his sandaled feet, he proclaimed, “Everything I pick up!”
Somehow, I was not surprised. After all, Akash and other Bangladeshi cleaners like him spend the majority of their time in the bin centres located within the neighborhoods that they clean. More than a place to claim pre-loved possessions, however, these bin centres have also become for these Bangladeshi workers a place to rest, shower, and even cook their daily meals – activities that they carry out in the company of the day’s refuse without batting an eyelid.
It was not always this way for them. “When I first came (to Singapore), I looked at it (the bin centre) and looked at my agent. You want me to spend the whole day there? But my agent said “when you go inside long enough you won’t notice the smell anymore.” Unfortunately, many Bangladeshi workers do go on to wearily accept things as they are.
Whether Akash and his compatriots become inured to their circumstances is hardly the point. The real issue is that tucked beneath the outward successes of our society are individuals who live in abysmal conditions. Ironically, they are the very people who keep the physical cleanliness of our housing estates. Yet most of these cleaners have no contracts, and often receive much less pay than they were promised in their home countries.
The past few months of befriending Akash and his friends have enabled me to realise how much of their lives I had failed to see: I had seen them as cleaners of my estate, but overlooked their day-to-day struggles, sacrificial love for their family members back home, and hopeful aspirations for the future.
Cheryl Sim is a final-year student in Business and Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. She volunteers with HealthServe.
*Not his real name