Honorary secretary and former president of human rights group MARUAH, Braema Mathi, took to Facebook earlier today (6 April) to point out that the poor living conditions at foreign worker dormitories – from high population density to the state of the toilets, cramped kitchens, and rotation use of recreational spaces for games – is already known and is “not news”.
She was referring, of course, to the recent media coverage of the new COVID-19 clusters identified by the Ministry of Health (MOH) at foreign worker dormitories and the subsequent news about workers pointing out the the bad conditions at these living spaces which are unclean, cramped, and have poor hygiene standards.
The news from MOH also sparked outcry from various individuals including activist Jolovan Wham and professor and international diplomat Prof Tommy Koh who decried the way foreign workers are treated in this country. Prof Koh described Singapore’s treatment of foreign workers as “Third World”.
However, Ms Mathi emphasised in her post that the actual news is the lack of action from employers and the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) given the current circumstances.
She wrote, “The news is this: why didn’t employers grumble about how their employees were living under these virus-filled days? Why didn’t MOM look for ways to prevent this from happening by looking at alternative spaces that could be used.”
She went on to point out that these are the same “oversights” as when Malaysians rushed to cross the border into Singapore when the country’s Prime Minister gave a 36-hour notice on a nationwide lockdown which started on 18 March.
“What is the value of all those records: by nationality, by type of work, by type of pass, by address of employers, by location, by stored medical data of workers, by number of years working in Singapore etc. – to not have worked out alternative accommodation styles?” asked Ms Mathi, who is also a founder of non-profit organisation Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).
Explaining that while the measures don’t have to be perfect, Ms Mathi says that she isn’t sure that holding on to Malaysian and other foreign workers and protecting them to prevent further community infections were seen as a priority.
Suggesting the next phase in planning, Ms Mathi asked how many Singaporean workers could be employed at better wages in order to “reconfigure” the nation’s human resources approach for the long term benefit of both the country and the people.
She noted, “There is a virus-given lead time to rethink, restructure, review, recreate the human resource model on liveable wages for Long-term sustainability.”
“But now – containment of the outbreak among migrant workers and their protection,” she concluded.