ItsRainingRaincoats' Dipa Swaminathan on the importance of migrant workers, self-care, and more
A simple gesture
"As one person I cannot change the world, but I can change the world of one person." — Paul Shane Spear
Last year, while the world was at a raging war with COVID-19, things started to spiral into something more desolating than a virus we couldn't quite understand. Amidst death, suffering, and fear, came the wave of self-reflection. Black Lives Matter, the reckoning of racism in conglomerates and notable media companies, awareness gone viral, and in our local context, an outpour of care and advocacy for migrant workers. Unfortunately, these aforementioned steps forward were a result of prior discrimination and xenophobia. In a nutshell, the damage was already done. What's left was the troubleshooting.
The surge of COVID-19 cases amongst migrant workers exposed a couple of cracks. One: the poor living conditions in the dormitories and lack of social distancing that fanned the flame of the infections. Two: the slew of racist and derogatory comments from netizens. It was a wake-up call for some, unfortunately not all; but the silver lining led to a greater sense of empathy for our migrant brothers and sisters. One particular organisation stood out and rose to the deed — ItsRainingRaincoats (IRR), which has been founded since 2015.
At the helm of it is founder Dipa Swaminathan, a Harvard-educated lawyer who is an assistant general counsel for Singtel. ItsRainingRaincoats earned its endearing name from two separate incidents that Swaminathan encountered with migrant workers, where it happened to be pouring out and she realised that in those situations, the workers weren't properly sheltered and caught entirely drenched. In both interactions, she dropped whatever she was doing to help — from picking them up in her car, offering a hot cup of beverage at her place, to more impactful steps of contacting the respective company they were managed by. All of her actions soon made an impact and went viral, as she noticed that the workers she chanced upon were given proper raincoats the next time she spotted them. While approached by Singapore Kindness Movement to start something concrete, the fitting name for the organisation was coined off the cuff. Of course, the song, 'It's Raining Men' by The Weather Girls also had some part to play in it.
Dipa Swaminathan speaking at TEDxTanglinTrustSchool back in 2018.
Today, ItsRainingRaincoats stands as a organisation that supports and builds bridges of interaction between Singapore residents and male migrant workers, without any funding or overheads to cover. When the spike in COVID-19 cases with the migrant workers happened last year, so did the volunteer numbers. With a hundred people in the core team and nearly 1,500 volunteers that have been there over the years, Swaminathan remarks during our phone interview: "It is very much a team effort, the team has put in a lot of amazing work over the years. Our main objective is to provide imaginative and nimble avenues for everyone to show compassion to migrant workers."
She further elaborates: "Our migrant workers contribute to a lot to Singapore. They built the homes we live in, the offices we work in, the roads we drive on. They tarred those roads, they prune our trees, they clean our garbage and our city. You know there are close to a million migrant workers in Singapore and you know they don't live under the most luxurious of conditions. We owe them a big debt, so any initiative to show them compassion, I think is very welcomed."
In your own words, how are the migrant workers doing right now?
I think it's a mixed bag, some are doing better and for some, with the prolonged anxieties of COVID-19 as well as all the restrictions and movement, it has been difficult combined with what is going on in their home country. So, it is very hard to say that it is getting better. I think it is a constant work in progress.
With a full-time job and ItsRainingRaincoats (IRR) being something from your personal capacity, how do you cope with everything?
To be very honest, there are days I feel completely burnt out, there are days I feel completely stressed and exhausted but there are other days when there's the joy of knowing you actually made a tangible difference to an individual's life. I mean that is very energising, it really fills me with a sense of purpose and it brings a sense of meaningfulness to my existence.
How do you unwind?
I don't get a lot of time these days but when I do, I like to read. I am also a big tennis fan so whenever there's a grand slam tournament going on, I like to watch some tennis. I also walk, which I really enjoy with my dog. And I love redecorating. Travel used to be my biggest relief but because I haven't been able to do so in two years, I've channelled some of those energies into redecorating my home. That's a big thing with me, I like to think of myself as a designer in a lawyer's skin.
What have you learnt from managing an organisation like this?
I've learnt plenty about myself, the world, and the society that we live in. Singaporeans are a compassionate group of people and I see the outpouring of love and support for the migrant workers every time we have an initiative. No one in the organisation is paid and all transportation expenses come out from our own pockets. We don't have any goodie bags to give to our volunteers nor do we have any awards or certificates for them. Everyone who comes to us, comes to serve because they want to help. Often, I am the face of IRR but really there's the legs and the hands behind it all. It takes a village.
What advice would you give to any aspiring leader in your position?
There's no rest in this line of work and it's just non-stop all year round. I told you earlier that there are times when I feel burnt out and my volunteers probably feel the same way. I do try to organise well-being initiatives for them, for instance, writing to hotels to see if they can host my volunteers for a complimentary high tea or appeal to leadership coaches to give some classes to them. It's important to always remember you need to water the well to be able to draw from it. If we ourselves are not taking care of ourselves, we may not be able to help others so that's the important point to remember. For me, it's not just about the needs of the migrant workers, but it's also the well-being of my volunteers.
What more can be done amongst Singaporeans?
If every individual shows compassion to migrant workers in their own way. It can be as simple as being stopped at a traffic light in your air-conditioned car, and seeing a lorry of migrant workers without the dignity of seat belts, maybe you can just smile and wave. Show them that you acknowledge them, make eye contact, and raise a hand as a greeting. Even something as simple as that can go a long way in breaking stigmas and breaking barriers.