Singapore—With 85 percent of the country’s coronavirus cases taking place among migrant workers in dormitories, the living conditions of these workers have become part of the national conversation since last month, and old and somewhat forgotten problem suddenly thrust into the center.
After the riots in Little India in 2013, a committee of inquiry was convened by Teo Chee Hean, who was the Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister at that time. The committee proposed a collaboration between dormitory operators and the Government to provide recreational facilities and additional shops near dormitories so that workers would not need to go elsewhere.
Tan Chuan-Jin, who at that point was the Manpower Minister, said that the “self-contained living, social and recreational facilities” commissioned to be built together with the dormitories, introduced the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act (FEDA) in 2015, which covered facilities that housed over 1,000 workers and provided a set of rules for management, which included sanitary and hygiene regulations, as well as those for workers’ living spaces.
However, earlier this year, migrant workers’ rights groups already warned the Government that these dormitories were at risk of becoming infection hotspots, given their crowded conditions and the disease’s swift spread.
Authorities say the outbreak among the workers was because of their socialization on their days off, as well as the fact that even after the rest of Singapore had begun to implement work from home schemes, migrant workers continued to show up to do their jobs, day after day.
Kong Chee Min, the CEO of Centurion, which owns several dormitories across Singapore, is quoted by the South China Morning Post (SCMP) as saying, “As a result, they were at a greater risk of exposure to the virus … They have worked tirelessly, all the time knowing that, despite precautions taken, they were putting themselves at risk of infection to keep Singapore going.”
Manpower Minister Josephine Teo admitted in an interview with the BBC, that more could have been done to prevent the spread of the virus. “If we were to be able to rewind the clock, one could say that these safe-distancing measures needed to go much further,” she said.
Moving forward, migrants’ rights groups say that this point can be a starting point for real change. Perhaps after this time, the Commissioner for Foreign Employee Dormitories who was supposed to be appointed after FEDA was passed in 2015, will become more present. According to the SCMP, Tan Chuan-Jin had said that the commissioner’s job included monitoring how the operators of the dormitories “must develop quarantine plans, in the event of an infectious disease outbreak, and provide sufficient sick bay facilities”.
Additionally, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong has said there is an “extensive plan” to make changes in the housing provisions for the country’s migrant workers.
Activists say, however, that the important thing is for workers themselves to become part of the process. “Workers’ own views should be extensively consulted,” SCMP quotes John Gee, the former president of migrant workers group TWC2, as saying.
As to protests from the owners of the facilities that changes would be too costly, especially proposals to give each worker more space, rights groups have suggested that part of the foreign worker levy paid by employers to the Government monthly could go toward improving their living conditions.
Mr Gee added that after the pandemic, more migrants would likely flock to Singapore for employment, but businesses would be in a better position to keep their current workers, who would have possibly already developed immunity to Covid-19.
He said, “This may be seen as a plus in reducing the likelihood of a second spread of Covid-19 and another big shutdown. Maybe this will incentivise the government to make it easier for workers here to change jobs without cost.” —/TISG
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