Singapore—Migrant workers became the face of Singapore’s pandemic fight last year, when over 90 per cent of the country’s infections were found among workers living in dormitories.
An unflattering light was then cast on the dorms’ crowded, and at times unsanitary, conditions.
And while the outbreak in the dormitories came under control as the workers were not only tested and treated but also largely confined to the dorms and their movements strictly controlled, a June 3 article in VICE World News asks whether the country has learned its lessons from last year—particularly in treating “migrant workers better?
The short answer to this is…maybe not, given that one year later, many migrant workers are still pretty much under strict lockdown, and their conditions have largely remained the same.
Furthermore, with the other problems migrant workers face, such as being ferried about in open-air lorries, the VICE article says some migrant workers are ready to leave the country, in addition to those who have already gone home.
And with a labour crisis exacerbated by the pandemic unlikely to end soon, some migrants rights groups have warned that unless things change, the long-term impact on Singapore may be considerable.
VICE quoted one migrant worker from Bangladesh, a Covid survivor, who is eager to go home. He told VICE that the situation in Singapore has “not improved much” from last year.
“I want to leave Singapore and make a clean start while I still can, even if it means forfeiting a stable salary,” he is quoted as saying.
While the article quotes the Ministry of Manpower as saying it would keep an eye on migrant workers’ living conditions, pictures obtained by VICE showed otherwise.
“One image showed queues of workers within a compound while another showed four men in a small makeshift bedroom that did not allow for much social distancing,” wrote Heather Chen in the article for VICE.
The article also quotes another migrant worker who talked to VICE about being transported in lorries, where there is little or no protection from rain or heat. Nor are the workers provided with seatbelts that may protect them in collisions with other vehicles.
Two such accidents within a span of five days in April took the lives of two migrant workers and saw over a dozen others hospitalised, leading activists and even some netizens to call for safer means of transport for the workers.
But Dr Amy Khor, the Senior Minister of State for the Transport Ministry, said this would only add financial burdens to an industry already badly affected by the pandemic.
VICE quotes activist Jolovan Wham as saying that political leaders view migrant workers “as economic units and would rather prioritize industry gains over their health and safety. They are only taken care of because they are instrumental to our needs, and only just enough so that they don’t start riots or cause another COVID outbreak”.
Ms Chen went on to write, “Singapore missing the mark in regards to treatment of migrant workers could well cost the city-state profoundly, especially if things don’t change.”
She quoted a statement from the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economies (HOME), who reiterated that many workers are still not allowed to leave their homes even on their rest days.
“Migrant workers feel they have no choice but to tolerate [these conditions] because they cannot risk losing their jobs during the pandemic,” said HOME. “They are under immense emotional and physiological stress. Their hopes to regain basic freedoms have been dashed.”
And while migrant workers are now in demand due to a shortage of workers, another rights group, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) said that even more exploitation has occurred.
“We are currently seeing an exodus of migrant workers who suffered during the outbreak and paid the price with their mental health,” TWC2’s vice president Alex Au told VICE.
He added that TWC2’s volunteers have noted an increase in workers who are opting not to renew their work contracts but instead choose to go home.
Mr Au added, “We are now losing strong and productive workers who have grown sick and tired of the poor conditions they have been subjected to for years.
“They are choosing to leave because they’ve had enough.”
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