Singapore, Singapore

The Cuff Road Project: Meals and a Friendly Ear for Jobless Migrants

Transient Workers Count Too

May 28, 2013

Migrant workers in distress receive help through a drop-in clinic and restaurant

Photo credit: JT Singh

From transit stations to housing flats, migrant workers across Singapore are the engine of city growth. They represent one quarter of Singapore’s population of over five million people. Many are manual laborers from Bangladesh, China and India who are – literally – building the vertical city from the ground up. As such a significant share of Singapore’s population,  the city’s success clearly depends on them.

However, employment for many of these low-waged city builders include precarious situations, with unpaid salaries, unscrupulous recruiters, overly-dangerous work leading to injury, and employers refusing to bear the cost of medical treatment. While migrant workers who have been injured at work can file cases for permanent injury compensation under Singapore law, these cases often take many months to settle. In the meantime the applicant is not allowed to work and has no source of income for such basic necessities as food and accommodation. The same is true for foreign workers who agree to act as a witness in a case against their employers.

Hot meals

Stepping into this gap is The Cuff Road Project (TCRP) which aims to help the most vulnerable workers through offering them not only a hot meal, but advice on how to follow up on their case, a friendly ear and even access to a free medical clinic. The project was started in 2008 after members of the city’s local community sector visited Singapore’s Little India and discovered penniless migrant workers sleeping on the pavement. The Cuff Road Project is a joint initiative of the anti-poverty group ONE (Singapore) and the non-profit advocacy organization Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) which runs the day-to-day operations.

The project organizers work with two restaurants in Little India to serve free meals – breakfast and dinner on weekdays, lunch on weekends – which cost TCRP $2 per meal for each client. Workers who show up to one of the restaurants are briefly interviewed to ascertain eligibility for the food program. They must show either a government-issued document that states they do not have a work permit or, if they have a work permit, a letter from a doctor or lawyer as evidence that they are injured or have a case pending.  If the worker meets the criteria, case details are recorded and a meal card is issued, to be updated monthly to validate details of current status and to track participation. More than 600 workers register each month, of which approximately 80% are awaiting a claim for permanent injury compensation.

On any given day, the restaurant is packed with migrants. Volunteers are busy interviewing, listening and advising participants. Often, it is the first time that the voices of these migrant workers are being heard. TCRP’s free meals work as an incentive for migrants to come together to gain advice or find help to deal with their circumstances. Through this process, volunteers gain deep insights into the lives of migrants in Singapore –both a meaningful learning experience and important for further advocacy or research.


The Cuff Road Project is a critical contact point for the Transient Workers Count Too organization and their work with the migrant worker community. Migrants in distress get free restaurant meals in a safe clean environment where they can eat, use facilities, and gather in dignity.  Volunteers on site monitor the food program and assist the men with issues such as preparing for meetings with government agencies and doctors, negotiating with employers, and keeping in touch with loved ones abroad. Student volunteers have also organized medical screenings, beach barbeques and used their experiences for school projects resulting in short films or presentations. The migrants themselves are invited to visit schools and community organizations to give talks to TCRP volunteers about their issues.

The project has inspired many offshoots, from a program specifically developed for workers from China to groups that provide additional services such as physiotherapy, breathing exercises, and even computer classes.  Three former volunteers with TCRP have started their own project, Behind the Borders, Behind the Men, to tell the stories of Bangladeshi migrant workers.

Today, Singapore’s manual labourers are starting to receive access to much needed help. The Cuff Road Project currently feeds over 200 workers a day and has served more than 360,000 meals between March 2008 and December 2012.

Contributed by JT Singh (edited and condensed for publication by editors)

Making it Work for You:

  • Partner with local businesses who can provide the services your clients need efficiently and cost-effectively. Identifying local champions will also boost your advocacy.
  • Help your volunteers do their job well by providing training and learning opportunities. Let them help you recruit new volunteers by encouraging them to share their experiences.
  • Storytelling is a powerful tool for change, and nothing is more powerful than a success story. A personal narrative that shows the way forward is always a story worth listening to.

For this Good Idea contact:

Debbie Fordyce, Transient Workers Count Too
5001 Beach Road, #06-27
Golden Mile Complex
Singapore, Singapore ,