Since founding the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) in 2004, Bridget Tan has been lauded both regionally and internationally for her work with migrant workers and combating human trafficking. Despite financial and health issues, she has continued to persevere and help the discriminated and marginalised.
Bridget Tan, 69, has an impressive résumé. Her advocacy for migrant workers’ rights has taken her to United Nations conferences on migration and human trafficking, and gotten her a 2005 nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. She was named one of the 10 Most Inspiring Women by UNIFEM Singapore in 2009, and received an honourable mention in Reader’s Digest Asia’s Asian of the Year Awards in 2010. In 2011, Bridget received the Hero Acting to End Modern-Day Slavery Award from then-US Secretary of State Mrs Hillary Clinton for devoting her life to the fight against human trafficking.
In 2014, Bridget suffered a stroke that left her confined to a wheelchair, but this did not weaken her spirit, and she has continued to champion her causes and direct HOME with great resolve and purpose.
I met Bridget at one of HOME’s “refuge” centres. Nestled in the eastern part of Singapore, this unobtrusive and nondescript location is actually a secret haven for migrant workers seeking shelter from their abusive or exploitative employers. It serves as their temporary home while the organisation tries to secure their release and safe passage home.
Bridget suffered a stroke at home in early 2014. She was found by her domestic worker, who called an ambulance and got her to the hospital in the nick of time. Photo by Adam Chan
Bridget graduated from the University of Singapore (now the National University of Singapore) in 1970 with an honours degree in political science and history. After graduation, she worked as a personnel executive for a company that manufactured metal containers and tin cans, and as such, spent the next few decades recruiting, interacting with, and managing migrant workers. These two decades of experience opened her eyes to the plights and issues commonly faced by migrant workers in Singapore, and built her resolve to help them.
The opportunity for Bridget to help migrant workers presented itself in 1997, when she was approached by a Filipino Catholic priest, Father Andy Altamyrano, to set up a commission for migrant workers and itinerant people. Although she did not speak the workers’ native languages, she did her best to help them.
“Although our focus was more on female domestic workers, I was game to help all migrant workers. They face the same problems, they are away from home, they come to a country so far away. They get exploited, cheated, both by employers and agents,” she explained.
At first, Bridget established a ministry under the Catholic Church, but she soon felt the nature of her work was better suited to an independent organisation, where she would have more freedom to manage its affairs. However, she was the only person running HOME at the time, and her options were limited because she lacked financial support.
“When I started HOME in 2004, I was around 55 years old. I started this single-handedly, then I started recruiting a few others to help me.” She was so committed to the cause that she even dipped into her CPF retirement savings to finance the organisation. The main obstacle she faced during HOME’s early years was securing funding for its operations.
Bridget’s noble endeavour caught the attention of a like-minded journalist who also believed in advocacy and social issues. Bridget recounted, “There was one time our bank account had only $5,000. How to pay rental and staff salaries?” The journalist publicised their difficulties and a private donor soon stepped forward and donated $50,000. “There are kind-hearted people in Singapore who are willing to help you if they believe in your work.” Besides private donations, Bridget also received financial help from others, who continue to support her work to this day.
Aware of the unemployment and poverty that awaited many returning migrant workers, Bridget wanted to give them an opportunity to reintegrate into their respective societies and break the cycle of circular migration and continued exploitation of these workers. “Many of the domestic workers in Singapore, when they go back to their country, they have no jobs because they’re from countries like Indonesia and Philippines, where it’s hard to find employment, so they come back again.” With that in mind, Bridget started the HOME Academy, a training school to teach these migrant workers new skills, and give them a chance at a new life back home.
The HOME academy holds classes for domestic workers on Sundays. Topics range from cosmetology to baking and computer skills. Image source: HOME
Although Bridget started HOME with the intention of helping migrant workers, an incident involving a female Thai national during the mid-2000s drew her attention to human trafficking. The victim had been lured to Singapore with the promise of a culinary career, but was later held captive and forced into prostitution. With no regard for her own safety, Bridget made plans to rescue the victim, who was being held in a forested area at Lim Chu Kang, from the pimps. Realising that her lone rescue mission might backfire, she enlisted the help of the anti-vice squad.
Since then, Bridget has actively campaigned to help victims of human trafficking. Her efforts caught the attention of the United States State Department, and she was invited to receive an award. “I was so surprised because an email was sent to me and I wondered if it was a joke. But when they really paid for my air ticket, I realised it must real,” she recalled with a chuckle. Bridget was presented with the Hero Acting to End Modern-Day Slavery Award by then-US Secretary of State Mrs Hillary Clinton in 2011.
Bridget (back row, second from the left) was invited to Washington D.C. to receive the Hero Acting to End Modern-Day Slavery Award from former US Secretary of State Mrs Hillary Clinton in 2011. Photo by Adam Chan.
The awards and accolades galvanised her and provided affirmation that she was doing the right thing. “The recognition and awards encourage me to continue my work,” she said, “So when I get awards, it means I’m doing it right.” Despite her health issues, Bridget remains resolute when it comes to the direction of HOME and continues to be involved in its operations from her home in Batam.
My only wish is for the rest of us to have half of Bridget’s courage and determination to help others despite numerous obstacles, even if they are neither friend nor kin.
Written by: Adam Chan
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign