He stretches out his hand and drops the little black button, no larger than a shirt button, into the plastic bowl. The shop owner hastily shoves a packet of food into his hands. Pomiah Chandran Suresh has often frequented the soup kitchen at Dunlop Street after he lost his job for seven months..

Outside the shop, he could hear thousands of devotees taking part in the penance festival of  Thaipusam. He could hear them chanting in Tamil and many of them walk alongside the kavadi bearers. Everyone’s happy, says Pomiah.

But, it has been a terribly lonely day for Pomiah. He has very much looked forward to spending Thaipusam with his family in India.

Unfortunately, Pomiah, like many of his fellow foreign workers who visit the soup kitchen frequently, could not go home yet.

“I cannot be with my family, my child. It is lonely. Without family, without money, I cannot even go back to India to celebrate Thaipusam,” he says.

He sighs. “I came here to earn a living and now I am without a cent,” says Pomiah, who has been out of work after he hurt both his legs at his workplace six months ago.

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Pomiah and many other Tamil foreign workers live in Little India. Many of them are currently waiting for their employers to compensate them for work injuries they have incurred in the past. Some of them have taken their cases to local lawyers because they could not get compensation from their employers.

Russell Heng, president of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) who runs the soup kitchen on Dunlop Street, supports people like Pomiah while they wait for their workplace disputes to be resolved.

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According to Heng, these cases could easily drag on from a few months to a few years.

“There are many issues involved. Take for example that of  agent fee. Was it paid to the agent in India or was it paid in Singapore? If some of the fee is paid here and some of the fee is paid in India, then who is responsible?”

Heng adds that in the last three years, there are 2,000 to 2,500 of these cases annually. Of course, he says, these numbers are restricted by the fact that TWC2 has only have a handful of volunteers and two full-time social workers. Due to manpower constraints, they deal with Bangladeshis and Indians only.

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“We should open our mind to the possibility of a larger problem out there,” he says, reflecting on the limitation of his welfare organisation.

Unhappy times

Like Pomiah, Kumar Swaminathan also took his case to TWC2. He says the compensation his company owes him for a workplace injury is the only reason that holds him here.

It was particularly difficult to bear on Thaipusam.
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“I feel very happy last time we [family] pray together, with my child, everything is happy. We go to temple together we do some feast with food. Now, here cannot do that, my family is not here. I feel very sad, money, everything is going bad,” he says.

He believes if he can fix his injured leg, his life would become normal again. “I want to do my leg properly. Now I cannot carry anything, I cannot run, cannot everything. My foot is problem.”

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At 8pm, the crowd has dispersed. One or two kavadi bearers could still be spotted on the street. Loganathan Kamalanathan finds himself staring at them after his dinner at the soup kitchen.

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He says he used to carry the kavadis in India. The people in his country walk for 40 to 50 km heavily geared with kavadis every Thaipusam.

Like Pomiah and Kumar, he remains in Singapore waiting for his medical compensation from his employer. He lost half a finger in an accident early last year.

He says he longs to head back to India and fulfil his vow to carry a kavadi again.

But, he reflects sadly that life would never be the same again in India, work will not come easy for someone with half a finger.