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68 illegal dorms “discovered” in Geylang – only tip of the iceberg?

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In the last four months, a shocking 68 unauthorised dormitories for workers have been identified in Geylang alone.

This was revealed by a report in the Straits Times on 9 April.

It said the illegal dormitories, apparently “uncovered” by the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) in those four months, “either lacked proper fire safety approvals or permission from the Urban Redevelopment Authority to be used as dormitories.”

dormsThe report said “the SCDF stepped up its checks” after a fire in an overcrowded dormitory in December in Geylang killed four foreign workers.

On 3 April, another fire in another dormitory – just 200m from the one in December – killed two more workers.

Investigations are ongoing on both incidents and it is believed that charges against those involved in the December fire will be filed soon by the Attorney General’s Chambers.

The 3-storey dormitory in December’s fire is believed to have housed as many as 100 foreign workers, with 10 or more in each of the reported 11 partitioned rooms in the shophouse dormitory.

Illegal and overcrowded makeshift dormitories which contravene safety and housing rules are not uncommon in Singapore. Besides Geylang, areas such as Little India and some industrial estates are known to also have these poorly managed living quarters for foreign workers.

“[The] authorities should have done something about it years ago already because overcrowded apartments are a widespread problem in places like Geylang and Little India,” said Jolovan Wham, the executive director of foreign workers aid group, Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME).

In 2008, the then Minister of National Development, Mah Bow Tan, revealed that “[an] estimated 80,000 to 100,000 are housed in illegal accommodations or living in conditions that are ‘not ideal’."

Indeed, in 2009, Tampines GRC MP Irene Ng called for “decent and humane housing” for foreign workers “so that they can come here and earn an honest wage and not feel like modern-day slave in Singapore.”

Ms Ng repeated her call 6 years later, in January this year.

“Singapore owes it to foreign workers to ensure they are provided with decent living conditions here and are not vulnerable to exploitation on account of their weak bargaining power and willingness to suffer hardships just to work here,” Channel Newsasia (CNA) reported her as having said in Parliament.

Ms Ng also called for the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to conduct regular spot checks and enforce stringent standards with deterrent penalties imposed on housing violations, whatever the size of the dorm.

But given the unrelenting influx of such lowly-paid foreign workers who are vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers, the problem of finding suitable accommodation for them continues to be an issue.

Currently, there are about 800,000 such workers in various sectors, such as in construction, in the marine/shipyard industry, in manufacturing, landscaping/conservancy, and the service sector.

They all need to be housed ‘cheaply’.

At the last count, there are only about 200,000 beds in the 40 or so purpose-built dormitories in Singapore.

Additionally,  there are another 100,000 beds in temporary dorms and 70,000  in construction site quarters.

That leaves about another 398, 800 Work Permit holders.

Where are they all staying?

In August 2014, it was reported that despite the availability of beds in big purpose-built dormitories, employers were giving them a miss because of costs considerations.

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.

The Manpower Ministry and National Development Ministry said in a joint statement in August 2014 that "proximity to workplace, convenience and costs" are also considered by employers when deciding on housing for workers.

All this leads to employers looking for cheaper and often poorly managed smaller dormitories, which include many illegal ones, as the 68 in Geylang show.

And this in turn makes it harder for the authorities to conduct adequate and regular checks.

“In such a situation, it is not clear to me what sporadic spot checks can really achieve,” a researcher tells The Online Citizen (TOC). “You do a spot check, possibly fine the landlord or the employer (or send a warning letter), and the workers get moved to another unauthorized dormitory.”

Or, as in the case of the fire in April, the workers would move out before inspectors arrive, and will return to the dormitories in the evening when the spot checks are done, leaving the authorities none the wiser.

But the workers do this for good reasons:

The foreign workers often have to put up with intolerable living conditions because any complaints they lodge with the authorities could result in them being sent home by their employers to their home countries. This in turn would saddle them with potentially a lifetime of debt for money which they had to borrow or raise to pay their agents in securing entry into and work in Singapore.

To the workers it is best to remain silent and endure the intolerable.

So, while the onus is being placed on employers to ensure their workers have adequate and safe accommodation, enforcement is also crucial.

Questions are thus being raised of how several governmental agencies have missed the signs and failed to take action against the illegal dormitories in Geylang which posed a danger to workers.

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)

If the authorities fail to spot or identify illegal quarters even after they have inspected them, how then is such unlawful accommodation going to be eradicated?

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The Government seems to be placing its bet on more purpose-built dormitories as the solution. It has also said it is “open” to the idea of housing some of these foreign workers at “offshore islands”.

But some feel that building more purpose-built dorms alone might not address the problem of housing workers properly, if employers are under cost pressures to find cheaper alternatives. Also, they might shun these purpose-built dorms which are only built in remote areas not readily accessible by public transport, and which will add to transport time and further costs.

“Enforcement efforts therefore need to be undertaken with appropriate policy planning in terms of the housing needs of our population, including low-wage foreign workers who are dependent on employers and agents to provide them with housing at a low cost,” the researcher says.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to something as simple as bringing in workers only if there is proper housing options for them.

“It is wrong to bring in so many migrant workers and not ensure they are housed properly,” Mr Wham tells The Online Citizen (TOC). “I wonder how much thought went into considering whether we have enough space to house them and whether we have the enforcement capability to ensure they are housed.”

He adds, “The problem is not intractable because ensuring there is enough decent housing that is affordable is well within the government's ability to plan.”

Until adequate housing options are available for all workers, there will be many more unauthorized dormitories scattered all over the island, and not just in Geylang.

This can only mean that it is only a matter of time before another tragedy as the ones we saw in Geylang happen again.

The 68 illegal dormitories in Geylang may just be the tip of the iceberg.