Time to eradicate death trap dormitories

On 3 April, two foreign workers from Bangladesh were killed in a dormitory fire in Geylang.

This was the second incident in four months which has resulted in fatalities.

On 6 December last year, four foreign workers (Malaysians) were also killed in a fire in Geylang, also in a dormitory.

That fire took place just a mere 200m from the one last week.

The December blaze was described as Singapore’s worst fire in a decade.

6 deaths in four months should be a wake-up call for everyone involved.

The similarities between the two incidents?

One, they are both walk-up apartments converted to dormitories for foreign workers.

Two, they were both reported to be overcrowded with workers.

Three, they were both death traps when fire breaks out because of inadequate or non-existent fire exits.

Four, apparently the workers – for some reason – did not feel compelled to lodge complaints with the authorities about their living conditions.

There really should be no more excuses, or delays or the pointing of fingers to escape responsibility for everyone involved.

It has been four months, for example, since the December tragedy and we are still awaiting the results of investigations.

Six dead is reason enough to truly get serious and do something to prevent similar incidents from happening.

As pointed out by the Straits Times’ Toh Yong Chuan on 7 April, there are several parties which must be taken to task for allowing such incidents to happen, or allowing such poor living conditions to exist which then leads to such disasters and loss of lives.

“These parties are, first, landlords who allow their premises to be turned into cramped quarters,” Mr Toh writes.

“In last week’s fire, the landlords, a Singaporean couple who gave their names only as Mr and Mrs Bala, told reporters that their tenancy agreement had limited the number of tenants to “eight or 10”, but admitted that they did not carry out checks. Such a mentality cannot absolve landlords of their responsibilities.”

Indeed, in December’s incident, it was reported that the shophouse had been partitioned into 11 rooms each occupied by about 10 people.

Neighbours said the 3-storey dormitory had housed foreign workers from China, India and Bangladesh, which might have totalled about 100 people.

This is clearly against regulations for dormitories.

According to Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) guidelines, rented residential properties can house only a maximum of eight people, regardless of size.

“Premises that house more than eight workers are considered to have been illegally converted into a workers’ dormitory,” the Ministry of Manpower’s website says.

Mr Toh writes:

“Then there are the middlemen who make a quick buck from illegal subletting. In the latest fire, the Singaporean landlords had rented their apartment to a master tenant for $3,200 a month.

“The master tenant – an unidentified foreigner here on a work permit – then partitioned the unit and reportedly rented out beds to more than 30 workers for more than $200 each, or at least $6,000 in total.

“Second, employers who do not take full responsibility for their workers’ living conditions also cannot be let off the hook.

“The employer of the two workers killed last Friday, Mr Thanapalan Vijayan of Prower Tech Engineering Services, told The Sunday Times that he was unaware of the cramped living conditions. Apart from the two who died, four more of his workers also lived in the unit. How can he be unaware of this?”

While landlords, middlemen and employers should be brought to task, perhaps the parties which should bear the heaviest responsibility are the enforcement agencies.

And there are at least six of these agencies which are responsible for foreign workers’ housing:

–         The Ministry of Manpower (MOM)

–         The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA)

–         Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF)

–         The National Environment Agency (NEA)

–         Building and Construction Authority (BCA)

–         The Public Utilities Board (PUB)

In all, there are as many as 9 or 10 parties involved who should be aware of such poor living conditions.

How then did all of them fail to raise the matter before things got worse and lives were lost?

Yet, such warnings of potential danger are not new.

In 2012, for example, the risk of fire posed by illegal dormitories was raised by the SCDF itself.

Illegally turning a home into a place for other uses accounted for four in 10 safety violation notices issued for unauthorised change in the use of premises, a SCDF report said then.

One of the dangers of such illegal dormitories is the lack of adequate fire exits in times of emergencies.

The SCDF explained then that a building meant for use as a home usually has only one exit, which becomes a problem if a fire should break out.

The consequences are worse if that one exit becomes impassable in a blaze.

From this writer’s past experience of visiting dormitories, inadequate fire escapes are a common problem in such poorly managed dormitories.

Yet, such dormitories are also common. A walk down Geylang or Little India or even in some industrial estates finds dormitories which are overcrowded, with workers squeezed into rooms which do not have the capacity to house so many.

And because of the overcrowding, safety evacuation measures are either overlooked or ignored altogether. Some fire exits are actually locked or boarded-up.

As far back as 2010, for example, when a fire broke out at a coffeeshop in Joo Chiat Road, many foreign workers were seen scurrying out of the second floor, with some literally jumping to the ground floor to escape the fire.

An eyewitness was surprised to see so many workers in that second floor dormitory.

[See TOC’s report then: “Joo Chiat fire – an old issue surfaces”]

With so many such dormitories around, and with news reports regularly highlighting these, why is there still a seeming lack of enforcement to correct this and bring those responsible for such atrocious accommodation to task?

And why aren’t these sort of illegal accommodation stopped once and for all? The problem has existed for many years.

As mentioned above, no fewer than six government agencies are involved in ascertaining or certifying such dormitories for legal use.

How did all these agencies miss the danger posed by the shophouses in Geylang?

The Minister of Manpower, Tan Chuan-jin, said after the December fire:

“If workers have not been given good housing, they should report to the authorities.”

But this is an inane thing to say. In fact, it smacks of ignorance of the context in which foreign workers live and work here in Singapore.

To place the onus on the workers is simply misguided.

Jolovan Wham, executive director of migrant worker welfare group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, explained in February:

“These premises are not designed to house people in large numbers. Turning them into dorms would be irresponsible especially if large numbers of workers are housed. Workers are packed like sardines into these places.

“These places are usually stuffy and crowded and some have triple-decker beds. But workers are often reluctant to file complaints, for fear of losing their jobs.”

The top priority now is to ensure that the living quarters of foreign workers are not overcrowded such that they become death traps when a fire breaks out.

“This must be done before the dead bodies pile up higher,” says Mr Toh.

Indeed. There have been three shophouse fires which housed foreign workers in the last seven months, with two of the fires resulting in 6 fatalities and many more injured or hurt.

As Mr Toh asks, “How many foreign workers have to die before something is done? That the workers had died from a ‘Third World’ cause, like a fire, in ‘First World’ Singapore ought to prick the conscience of people here, especially that of the parties involved in housing foreign workers.”

It is time to stop making excuses or placing the onus or blame on the workers themselves, and get down to eradicating this problem once and for all, for all our sakes.

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