Cover Dipa Swaminathan wears a Erdem dress, available at Club 21

How the ground-up movement Dipa Swaminathan founded rallied an entire nation into helping Singapore’s migrant worker community during the pandemic

During Singapore’s circuit breaker period in April and May, many took the opportunity to indulge in calming activities like baking and gardening. But that was not the case for It’s Raining Raincoats (IRR) founder Dipa Swaminathan and her team of some 40 core volunteers. They worked around the clock coordinating widespread efforts to offer aid to Singapore’s migrant worker community, most of whom were quarantined in crowded dormitories. 

(Related: Introducing Asia's Most Influential: The Impact List 2020)

"The requests for help from workers were endless and seeing the issues they faced was heartbreaking. There weren’t enough hours in a day for us to help." Swaminathan founded this ground-up movement in 2015 to help improve the lives of migrant workers in Singapore and to encourage their integration into the broader community.

At the peak of Singapore’s outbreak, IRR mobilised hundreds of volunteers to distribute 600,000 hot meals and 120,000 care packages and helped 12,000 workers with their mobile data top-ups so that they could stay in contact with loved ones while in isolation. The organisation also co-authored a mental health booklet with the Singapore Medical Society of Ireland and coordinated fundraising efforts for families of deceased or terminally ill migrant workers during the pandemic.

Up next, Swaminathan is planning to get IRR registered as a charity so that they can implement programmes such as upskilling workshops on a more permanent basis.

What moves her the most about the pandemic experience is how the community at large came together in serendipitous ways during these tough times, often resulting in a “butterfly effect”. “It was like the universe conspired to help us,” she marvels.

Many groups, including MNCs, NGOs, law firms, religious organisations, schools and even individuals came together to pool resources, donations and services. She recalls how an observation that workers were drinking milk donated by Starbucks out of cartons because they had no mugs led a group of mothers to buy 600 cups from Ikea. In turn, this action spurred Ikea to donate its in-house brand of biscuits and other snacks as a treat for the workers.

The requests for help from workers were endless and seeing the issues they faced was heartbreaking. There weren’t enough hours in a day for us to help

—Dipa Swaminathan, founder of It's Raining Raincoats

Her movement’s greatest achievement, she believes, is in de-stigmatising views of foreign workers in the country. “When I first started IRR, migrant workers were not visible and I hope and believe we played a part in changing the narrative in how they are perceived and how they are treated.”

  • PhotographyDarren Gabriel Leow
  • StylingJoey Tan
  • Make-UpZhou Aiyi