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COVID-19 exposes the Singapore migrant worker experience

Some 95 per cent of Singapore’s 58,000 cases of coronavirus have been contracted by low-wage migrants, primarily from India and Bangladesh

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By: Laavanya Kathiravelu

As the world moves into the ‘new normal’ phase of COVID-19, the winners and losers of pandemic management are emerging. The pandemic has exposed socioeconomic inequalities even in countries that traditionally boast quality leadership and resources.

Broadly speaking, Singapore has fared well by most metrics. Although many countries have suffered from runaway cases and casualties, Singapore reports one of the lowest deaths per capita from the virus despite its moderately high infection rate.

Yet 95 per cent of Singapore’s 58,000 cases of COVID-19 have been contracted by low-wage migrants. Primarily from India and Bangladesh, migrant men in Singapore work in construction, manufacturing and shipping, all of which are key to maintaining city infrastructure. Their temporary work visas prevent them from bringing family members and gaining access to citizenship. They are often housed in dormitories with up to 20 men sharing a room. Toilets, bathrooms, cooking and recreational facilities are also communal.

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Research confirms that tight and dense living conditions within such dormitories increases the risk of exposure to COVID-19. In response, the Singaporean government has pledged to improve these living conditions by increasing the allocated amount of space per person, but their efforts have only been implemented partially.

Cleavages in pandemic management are most apparent in the restrictions on mobility imposed on low-wage migrants. While all Singaporean residents were subject to a period of lockdown, many low-wage migrants have had to endure this for longer. Some were not allowed to leave their shared dormitory rooms as part of the government’s containment strategy.

The non-payment of wages (or payment of only base salaries) while migrants are confined and cannot work is a key source of stress for men who typically take on large debts to migrate, and whose families are dependent on remittances. For those in quarantine, the additional fear of contracting the virus while away from family leads to increased emotional and mental stress. The movement of migrants during quarantine to new locations away from ethnic enclaves in the city centre also reduces the accessibility of existing social networks and emotional support structures.

Having tested negative and recovered from the virus, many migrants are still subject to movement restrictions — often with only three-hour passes for outside activity each week. In interviews and conversations with migrant workers, this is often raised as a key aspect of unequal treatment during the pandemic. Despite low-wage migrants being subjected to greater surveillance and testing, middle-class immigrants and citizens are still afforded greater freedoms.

Most migrant men are still immensely appreciative of the efforts made by the Singaporean government to manage the pandemic among dormitory communities — particularly in providing free, high-quality healthcare. In comparison to low-wage migrant communities in parts of the Persian Gulf or India, Singaporean migrant workers receive far better treatment and have lower COVID-19 mortality rates. But the longevity of restrictions on mobility are taking an emotional toll, with reports emerging of attempted suicides in dormitories.

A video of a migrant worker on the ledge of his high-rise dormitory window raised further concerns within wider civil society — while local NGOs have highlighted that suicides were not unusual in this community without solid access to mental health professionals even prior to the pandemic. Patterns of suicide in home countries like India point to the cultural prevalence of suicide as a common and deeply unfortunate ‘solution’ to economic hardship among those beset by poor living conditions exacerbated by COVID-19.

The public has become more attuned to the conditions of migrant workers and is now responding to the deteriorating mental health of this marginalised population. Grassroots efforts to reach out to migrants through online programs and activities have proliferated in a city where the government is typically looked to for solutions. Migrant NGOs together with local healthcare authorities have issued infographic messages to migrants via social media, advising them to make contact with their friends or native-language helplines.

There are now almost no new infections among the migrant population thanks to Singapore’s inclusive understanding of public health. An approach that goes beyond categories of citizens and non-citizens is particularly significant at a time when most states are closing borders to privilege ‘their own’.

But for how long will low-wage migrant welfare — and associated issues of living standards — remain integral concerns to Singapore? That depends on whether the shift in public perception and policy brought about by COVID-19 lasts, or whether it will be an instance of pandemic exceptionality.

Laavanya Kathiravelu is Assistant Professor at the School of Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. This article was first published on the East Asia Forum and is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.

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