Joo Chiat fire – an old issue surfaces

Andrew Loh

Following the fire which broke out at a restaurant at Joo Chiat Place last Thursday, several residents from the area have written to their Member of Parliament, Mr Chan Soo Sen, to raise certain concerns.

Besides the issues of the accessibility of escape routes, the presence of suspected vice activities, and the cleanliness of the estate, the residents were “shocked” by the sheer number of people which had spilled out from the upper floors of the building which housed the restaurant, when the fire started at about 10.30pm.

Mr Tan, who witnessed the blaze, estimates that there must have been more than 100 people lining the road that night, some of whom he saw escaping from the upper floors of the building.

“The occupants were climbing out of the second floor window,” Mr Tan tells The Online Citizen (TOC) “and a ladder was used to get to safety on the street. What really caught our attention was the number of people who scampered out from that second floor unit – there must have been about 20 people! Most of them appeared to be foreigners, and quite a few even escaped with their suitcases in tow.”

Fortunately, no one was injured in the blaze, which was caused by an explosion of gas cylinders. According to news reports, the fire was put out in less than half an hour.

“We had always suspected that the [units] were overcrowded,” Mr Tan says, “with landlords tenanting rooms to a large number of foreign workers, ranging from labourers to bar hostesses working in pubs in Joo Chiat Road.”

TOC paid a visit to the restaurant on Saturday afternoon and found that it was closed. Plastic chairs, burnt and half-melted by the fire, were strewn outside the restaurant. The lone staircase, which was the only escape route for occupants in the upper units, was rendered inaccessible as the fire raged through it, evidenced by the blackened walls and charred railings. The passageway to the upper units was dark, even in the afternoon.

The second floor unit was apparently partitioned into at least four rooms – with even the empty space underneath the staircase  converted into one of these rooms. It is however unclear how many occupants were in each of them or if they were all foreign workers.

Mr Tan gives us some insights. “Telltale signs include the large number of double-decker beds and partitions that can be seen through these units’ windows,” he explains “and the unusually large amount of laundry on their balconies.”

“This had always been a concern to us and our families,” he added.

Indeed, in TOC’s coverage of issues relating to foreign workers last year, we had come across similar situations. We visited makeshift dormitories in Geylang, Little India and Chinatown which housed foreign workers from China, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Workers were packed into rooms in shophouses and apartments. Some had as many as 40 occupants sleeping on concrete floors with just one route of escape in case of emergencies. TOC reported cases where workers were placed in cargo containers and in run-down factories converted into dormitories, all in sub-human conditions unfit for occupation.

In others, workers were subjected to squalid conditions, as in this case of some Chinese workers living in the basement of a condominium being built, “Is Singapore really slum-free?

Thus when the Prime Minister announced in August that Singapore would have 80,000 more foreign workers this year, in addition to the more than 1 million presently, the first question which came to mind was: where would these 80,000 workers be housed?

In 2008, Minister for National Development Mr Mah Bow Tan said that “[the measures to house the workers] include making it easier for them to be housed where they work, letting them rent residential premises, allowing industrial premises to be converted into dorms and providing permanent dorms.”

“As far as possible, worker dormitories are located further away from residential areas,” Mr Mah said.

Apparently, this means as “further away” as the Choa Chu Kang cemetery  (See TOC’s report here: Social isolation – left among the dead), and the use of dilapidated factories which we brought to the public’s attention in 2009. (See “179 foreign workers abandoned by employer”)

In 2008, the Business Times reported that “[the government] has released 11 sites for purpose-built dormitories since February last year and is studying others for temporary quarters.” The dormitories are expected to be ready by 2011 and will have 65,000 beds.

Also in 2008, Mr Mah disclosed that “[an] estimated 80,000 to 100,000 are housed in illegal accommodations or living in conditions that are ‘not ideal’.  This was proved by some of the stories and reports we did in 2009 and 2010.

The question thus remains: Even if the 11 new dormitories are ready, will they be enough? Is Singapore providing adequate housing for these workers, given their large numbers, which is more than a million now?

The answer comes from Mr Mah himself. “[Even] if all these sites are converted into housing for workers, it will still not totally meet the demand,” he said, referring to the 10 temporary sites the government was looking at in 2008.

What may worry Singaporeans is that the government, while opening the door to the influx, is itself unprepared or is unable to anticipate the potential problems which come with it. Indeed, Mr Mah admitted as much. “’Yes, we do some planning but the build-up of the spaces requires quite a lot of lead time so we could not anticipate that…To call it poor planning, to call it one of the problems of success because we were so successful, we did not anticipate this kind of issue.”

If 80,000 to 100,000 were being housed illegally in 2008, and 80,000 more workers are coming into Singapore this year, where are they all going to be put up?

It seems that migrant workers will continue to be housed in atrocious conditions, despite media publicity highlighting the issue, until the 11 dormitories are completed.

Mr Jolovan Wham, Executive Director for HOME, an NGO which works with migrant workers, says: “Decent accommodation for foreign workers seems to be in short supply. We have been to poorly ventilated living quarters with triple-decker beds and the workers are packed like sardines into a tight space.” Triple-decker beds are illegal under the Ministry of Manpower’s rules.

Coincidentally, just a day after the fire at Joo Chiat on Thursday, the United Nations issued a statement on the human rights of migrant workers around the world. In it, the UN said: “Today, most of the 200 million international migrants are not enjoying their right to adequate housing.” It also said “[states] had no justification for not protecting the vulnerable groups.” (Read the UN statement here.)

In their letter to Mr Chan, the residents of Joo Chiat Place urged the authorities “to do the necessary to investigate and tackle the overcrowding issue, improve hygiene standards in the public space, clamp down vice activities, and ensure that there are no fire hazards in this stretch of Joo Chiat Place.”

Now, with the fire at Joo Chiat Place clearly demonstrating the danger of such inadequate housing, the Singapore authorities should explain to Singaporeans how our huge population of foreign workers is to be properly taken care of, before lives are unnecessarily lost.

Read an eyewitness account of the Joo Chiat fire here.