COMMENT: Free yoga lessons for foreign workers ain’t gonna solve anything

Free yoga lessons being taught in foreign worker dorm centres. (YouTube screengrab)
Free yoga lessons being taught in foreign worker dorm centres. (YouTube screengrab)

Kirsten Han is a Singaporean blogger, journalist and filmmaker. She is also involved in the We Believe in Second Chances campaign for the abolishment of the death penalty. A social media junkie, she tweets at @kixes. The views expressed are her own.

There’s been no shortage of patronising attitudes towards South Asian migrant workers in the aftermath of the Little India Riot.

We've seen their countries denigrated, their manners dismissed as “Third World” and not as civilised as ours.

We've seen them stereotyped as alcoholics, justifying pointless discussions about keeping them away from booze. Private bus services providing them transport between their dorms and Little India were reduced.

“Alternative activities” are being encouraged to keep the workers indoors, since they apparently can no longer be trusted to handle themselves.

But this one takes the cake, methinks -- free yoga classes, as reported by Channel News Asia! Organised by the Art of Living Centre, the men are taught “relaxation and breathing techniques”, as well as given “motivational talks”.

Er, isn't this just an ill-disguised way of keeping them confined to remote dormitories?

Well-intentioned it may be but it's misguided to the point of being a tad insulting.

The government has continually insisted that the multiple struggles faced by low-wage migrant workers had nothing to do with the strike, using the mainstream media to shout louder than activists who have spent years documenting and highlighting problems.

The riot has triggered a number of actions – from prosecution and deportations to alcohol bans – but the one thing it has not yet led to is an honest, frank assessment of the web of exploitation and abuse that workers find themselves caught in.

In this context, the message of free yoga classes seems to be this: This has nothing to do with the harsh injustices faced by migrant labourers... they just need to learn how to breathe and de-stress!

Completely ignored is the fact that for many migrant workers – not just from India and Bangladesh but other countries like China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar – their stress may perhaps be caused by the system that brought them to Singapore?

Their journey to Singapore often begins with pawning valuables, selling land and undertaking large amounts of debt for agent fees and kickbacks.

Once work begins, a worker might find himself underpaid and working long hours, which they did even when the haze settled in over the island. Injured workers could find themselves stuck, their employers refusing to pay for medical care. Cases under investigation can drag on while the worker is forced to stay in the country without the right to work or financial support. One doesn’t need to look very far to find causes of stress for a migrant worker.

If reducing stress was the real intention, one would be better off making sure the troubles of migrant workers are acknowledged and that they have access to justice. A system which allows for employers – not to mention the infamous repatriation companies – to get away with bullying and abuse should be reviewed and reformed to protect the rights of those who build our infrastructure and clean our streets.

Yoga lessons may help in teaching grown men how to live their lives and what to do with their free time but it also draws attention away from systemic and institutionalised flaws towards individual failures to deal with stress.

The workers don’t need to learn how to do the Downward Dog or meditate: what they need is to live and work in a society that respects their rights as much as anyone else’s.

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