Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) last Friday (3 April) revealed that the conditions of dormitory rooms of migrant workers “are nearly ideal for transmission of infection” as each 90 square metres room (sqm) cramped around 12 to 20 men, where the social distancing measure will be “laughable” to be imposed in the worker’s dormitories.
According to TWC2, due to the high cost of Singapore’s land, the dormitory operators will “pack” the migrant workers into a dormitory room with a minimum floor area of 90 sqm for 20 men based on the given building code. This means per person will only get 4.5 sqm for its space.
On top of the small spaces, there are ten double-deck beds in the room to accommodate 20 men and each bunk is close to each other as it only about one metre apart.
“Typically, there’s laundry hanging everywhere as well, making the place feel damp. We can put in three toilets and three shower rooms within those 90 square metres, producing a ratio of six or seven men per toilet or per shower. There’s hardly any space left except for maybe a table and a few chairs,” said TWC2.
At the same time, TWC2 stood on different stance when the dormitory operators need to ensure no inter-mixing of workers between dormitory blocks and floors, and with workers based on the advisory issued by Ministry of Manpower (MOM).
TWC2 pointed out that this advisory will create the impression of pointing the finger at dormitory operators if the COVID-19 outbreak takes place in the dormitory.
TWC2 said, “But the problem, really, is the rooms. When we cram 12 – 20 men into a dorm room, the notion of safe distancing in the room itself is laughable. All the distancing we do outside the rooms would not make much difference. In fact, getting the men out of the rooms, counter-intuitive though it may be, may achieve better distancing.”
Other than the room size, TWC2 also raised the concern about workers who might also expose to the risk of being infected with virus when using a same lift with the infected worker.
“Imagine workers having to take the lifts down the eighteen floors to leave for work. It would be a fair bet that the lifts would be packed. One infected person or one contaminated lift button may be all it takes to infect 20 or 30 other men over the course of a day, and from there, it can multiply exponentially,” it said.
Hence, TWC2 noted that the risk of transmission in the dormitories was resulted from the existing building code while adding, “Waving the stick at dorm operators will only go so far in mitigating it.”
Suggest “tent city” for temporary relocating; but enhanced standards of building code is needed for a better accommodation for foreign workers
Speaking on relocating workers from overcrowded dorms to less crowded dorms, TWC2 said that this will not be a long term alternative to prevent the disease transmission because there will be no place to accommodate or isolate a large number of people if a major cluster develop.
TWC2 also cautioned of an unplanned or poorly organised relocation might raise the virus transmission risk among the wider community.
Thus, TWC2 highlighted the importance of planning and adequate preparations, which must be made “at the highest levels”, noting, “A mass transfer of workers is not something that dormitory operators can organise on their own.”
By referring the concept of “tent city” in other countries, TWC2 suggested government to use canvas screens to create separation and private spaces and convert the empty multi-storey carparks at Changi Airport or floor space of Changi Expo into a temporary shelter in order to accommodate the relocated workers in a short period.
Not only that, TWC2 also suggested to vacate the army barrack to house the workers as the national servicemen will not be affected because they have homes to go back to.
Indeed, to provide a better accommodation and living conditions for workers, the standard of building codes have to be improved to ensure a better health security for everyone as well as to strengthen defense against transmission risk in the future, says TWC2.
TWC2 recommended that to double the floor area per person, otherwise tripled, and the room capacity should limited to no more than four persons per room.
“Migrant workers don’t stay inside dorms all the time. They come out to work, very often amongst us or alongside us. If we want protection from disease, we must protect them too,” it added.
Enhanced measures for foreign worker dormitories
In view of the COVID-19 cluster in the foreign workers’ dormitories, S11 Dormitory @ Punggol, with 13,000 resident workers, and Westlite Toh Guan dormitory, with 6,800 resident workers, have been gazetted as isolation areas.
MOH states that this is necessary to avoid the risk of further transmissions from any potentially infected workers to others in the dormitories, as well as into the community. Workers who are symptomatic have already been isolated.
As the Government has locked down both dormitories, the movement of workers who stay there will be restricted and they are not allowed to leave their dormitories for the next 14 days while practising social distancing as an enhanced measure to curb the spread of virus transmission.