There are almost 800,000 Work Permit holders working in Singapore, mostly in the marine and construction industries.
Housing them has always been a problem for land-scarce Singapore. At present, there are some 40 purpose-built dormitories for these workers, with a total of 200,000 beds.
The disparity between the need and supply is obvious, and employers have always been hard-pressed to find bed space for their workers.
Now, however, it is the employers themselves who are shying away from renting these beds, although the dormitory operators say that there are 5,000 beds still available.
The main reason seems to be the rising costs of such beds.
Both the dormitory operators and employers are blaming each other for the state of affairs, which is a turnaround of the situation just a year ago when employers would grab such beds amidst a shortage of supply.
The dormitory operators say that employers prefer to house their workers in cheaper on-site facilities; while the employers blame the operators for raising the rent of such beds.
Some employers say that the rent in purpose-built dormitories has been increased from about S$250 to as much as $320 a month per bed. Housing them on-site, on the other hand, is much cheaper.
Also, employers say they save on travelling time and transport costs to ferry their workers to work sites.
According to Ministry of Manpower (MOM) rules, employers are allowed to house their workers in purpose-built dormitories, converted industrial premises, or quarters on construction sites.
In August, the government said “a new mega-dormitory at Tuas South Avenue 1” will be opened by year’s end. The complex will have 16,800 beds, and self-contained facilities such as a minimart, a beer garden and a foodcourt.
It will also include a 250-seat cinema and a cricket field, within its 8.4ha compound.
By 2016, another 25,000-bed dorm will open in Sungei Tengah. This is part of the government’s plans to build another nine purpose-built dormitories in the next two years to cater to the workers.
These will add an expected 100,000 beds to the pool.
In April last year, the Minister of National Development, Khaw Boon Wan, said the government “is open to the idea of housing some foreign workers at nearby offshore islands.”
The current claim by employers that they shun renting beds in purpose-built dormitories because it is more expensive, however, is disputed by some operators.
Mr Ken Lim, chairman of the biggest dorm operator here, Vobis, said “response was poor even when he reduced prices to $250 a month from $320 as part of a National Day promotion”, according to the Straits Times.
His company, which runs seven dormitories, has “at least 3,000 empty beds”, he said.
In July, the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), a non-governmental organisation catering to the needs and welfare of migrant workers in Singapore, said in its response to the report by the Committee of Inquiry into the Little India riot last December:
“Large numbers of workers continue to live in cargo containers, factory converted dormitories, shop houses, private apartments, HDB flats and temporary work sites facilities, including incomplete buildings under construction.
“These places are often cramped, unhygienic and full of pests. Their living conditions still fall short of international housing standards.”