By Jolovan Wham

“This is where we do our business”, explained Rafiqul Islam (not his real name), as he led me down a flight of steps into a a small makeshift shack covered by a flimsy blue plastic canvas.

For the past year, approximately 20 workers from South Asia and China live in this construction work site with only one toilet bowl to themselves.  When the building is complete, it will be a three storey residential bungalow at an upscale neighbourhood near the Western part of Singapore.

Many migrant labourers live in purpose-built dormitories, converted industrial spaces, walk-up apartments, shop houses, or construction sites. At construction sites, housing is either temporary buildings erected for residential purposes or the workers may inhabit the building they are constructing. Poor sanitation, dusty environments, and inadequate ventilation are typical conditions which workers in such housing have to endure.

‘1 toilet so many good,’

Several of the Bangladeshi workers HOME spoke to at this worksite were unanimous in their assessment of the lack of toilet and bathing facilities. ‘Toilet very bad, not clean, but no choice,’ Rafiqul Islam told us when we visited his work site one weekend night. He was careful not to let his supervisor know that he wasn’t happy about his living environment or he might get into trouble. Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower does little to protect migrant workers who are terminated from their employment. Employers may cancel work permits at whim and repatriate workers, and avenues for redress are limited and often ineffective.

Even though laws exist to regulate the living environment of workers, the standards are inconsistent because of the different types of housing available. An acute shortage of housing for foreign workers in Singapore has also led to the authorities and employers compromising on the welfare of workers in favour of expedient and cheaper alternatives.  As a result, standards in terms of space allowed, occupancy rate, and ventilation differ, depending on the type of housing. With a basic salary of only $500 a month, workers are often reluctant to live in costlier dormitories, which may set them back by up to $300 in monthly deductions. Those living in partially constructed buildings like Rafiqul Islam are the worst off.

Worksite housing poorly regulated

The Building Control Act (Use of Temporary Buildings under construction as workers’ quarters 2008) sets out the standards for those living in partially constructed buildings. While it is legal  for employers to house them in such premises, it is not surprising that the environment is dusty, sandy and pest infested. Sanitation is woefully inadequate and shower facilities are non-existent, except for a hose attached to a tap. The Building Control Act (Use of Buildings Under Construction as Workers’ Quarters Regulations 2008) only ensures that the building is structurally safe and the rooms workers are housed in are of sufficient height and land space.  Regulations to ensure sufficient ventilation are too broad, making it legal for workers to be housed in windowless rooms as long as there is a ‘mechanical ventilator’.  It is also silent on other aspects which are essential to workers’ welfare, such as the occupancy rate.

Employers are told by BCA to adhere to National Environment Agency Guidelines to ensure basic sanitation and hygiene standards but these guidelines are below international benchmarks. For instance, the International Labour Organisation recommends one toilet bowl for every six workers whereas NEA’s policy is one for every twenty-five.  There are no facilities such as lockers for workers to store their personal belongings and there is hardly any privacy for them. Electricity supply at night is also limited, making it dangerous for workers to move around the site where they live. It is also common for workers who are living in buildings under construction to be housed in the basement. When it rains, the area in which they are sleeping in may flood.

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In 2008, HOME produced a video in collaboration with The Online Citizen to raise awareness of the slum-like conditions workers at worksites were forced to live in.

When I asked Rafiqul Islam if he would like to file a complaint about his poor living conditions,  he shrugged his shoulders and said ‘No point. I complain, boss send back. After this project finish, I go to another working site. Maybe it is better.’

This article was first published on HOME’s website.

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