Recent reports of overcrowding, insufficient meals and other major issues surrounding conditions at several migrant workers’ dormitories have surfaced in the past week, prompting veteran architect Tay Kheng Soon to raise multiple questions on the criteria behind the construction and operations of the said dormitories.
In a Facebook post last Sat (11 Apr), Mr Tay raised pertinent issues concerning the layout and construction of the dormitories, such as those related to the qualified persons (QPs) responsible for designing the dorms, the site chosen by developers to construct the dorms on, the selection process for developers, and how the occupancy density of the dorms was determined.
Mr Tay also questioned as to who has been paying the rent, utilities and food for the migrant workers. He also raised the issue of how many migrant workers are actually being housed in one room versus how many are allowed to be housed in one room.
TOC has learnt, based on a previous report about conditions at the S11 Dormitory @ Punggol, that it is unclear as to whether the employer or workers will pay for cleaning fees.
Veteran diplomat Tommy Koh has also previously raised an issue regarding the conditions at the isolation facilities in which migrant workers are being housed.
“The government has allowed their employers to transport them in flatbed trucks with no seats. They stay in overcrowded dormitories and are packed likes sardines with 12 persons to a room.
“The dormitories are not clean or sanitary. The dormitories were like a time bomb waiting to explode. They have now exploded with many infected workers,” he said in a Facebook post.
National Development Minister Lawrence Wong told the media earlier this month that the decision to gazette the dormitories was part of two separate strategies for tackling local transmission, each for dormitories and the community at large.
“Once the circuit breaker (measures) kicks in, all foreign workers, on top of (those in) isolation areas, will have to stay in dormitories and will not be able to come out, so there is no infection to the rest of the community,” he said.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) said that quarantining all workers staying in the two dormitories will serve to prevent 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, the Ministry added.
Migrant labour rights organisations criticise Govt decision to gazette migrant worker dormitories, citing high risk of mass infections and urging increased capacity of mass testing
The Government’s decision to gradually gazette five migrant worker dormitories as isolation areas following the formation of clusters in S11 Dormitory @ Punggol, Westlite Toh Guan and Toh Guan Dormitory, however, has attracted strong criticism from migrant labour rights’ organisations and activists, given the high risk of mass infections among workers living in the said dormitories.
Migrant workers’ rights organisations such as Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME), among them, have prompted the Government to conduct mass COVID-19 testing of migrant workers residing in such dormitories, especially given that many individuals who are infected may show little to no symptoms of having the virus.
TWC2 called upon the Government to heighten the capacity for COVID-19 testing, and to not only test workers in the gazetted dormitories but those residing in other dorms as well.
“We urge a massive increase in testing capacity. All 24,000 workers should be tested and the population in dorms – not just the three quarantined one, but all dorms – should be thinned out to enable physical distancing,” said TWC2.
Referencing a report by The Straits Times on Mon (6 Apr), which stated that the current COVID-19 testing rates have stepped up to nearly 2,900 per day, TWC2 posited that even if Singapore “devoted all testing to just the workers in the three dorms, it would take us 8 – 9 days to test all 24,000 workers”.
“We will always be behind the curve at such an inadequate testing rate,” said the organisation.
HOME on 6 Apr similarly urged the Government to conduct wide-scale testing of migrant workers in accommodation with confirmed infections.
Highlighting that the high density of residents in such dormitories — coupled with the asymptomatic transmissibility of COVID-19 — may result in a new cluster of infections, HOME expressed its concerns regarding “recent cases where employers not only refused to cover workers’ medical expenses but also discouraged or even punished workers for seeing a doctor when unwell”.
“Unsurprisingly, workers usually see a doctor only when their symptoms are sustained or more serious. Workers’ poor access to timely medical care means those infected may go undetected until much later: lengthening the period that the virus may be transmitted.
“Keeping them in such living conditions creates systemic vulnerabilities waiting to erupt. This endangers the workers and the broader community: not only during pandemics, but even with smaller-scale disease outbreak such as TB,” the organisation warned.
“Singapore has benefited so much from enjoying the fruit of their labour while keeping their cost low. We owe it to them and their families to spare no effort to protect them,” said HOME.
While TWC2 acknowledged that relocating around 100,000 workers “is no doubt a daunting task”, the organisation said that the Singapore Government “is famed for commandeering resources to meet big challenges”.
The Government, said TWC2, should “fit out empty buildings” such as “abandoned HDB or other structures waiting to be demolished”, construct makeshift accommodations on empty land or car parks, or utilise army barracks and hotels.
Separately on 7 Apr, the Ministry of National Development told ST that 21 vacant Housing Board blocks in Bukit Merah are being refurbished to house healthy foreign workers working in essential services.
Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sam Tan told residents in a notice a day prior that the dormitories of the workers who will be occupying the vacant HDB blocks in Bukit Merah have not been spared from COVID-19.
Housing them separately, said Mr Tan, will “keep them safe from the disease, which will in turn keep us safe when they are working in our midst”.
TOC recently reported that a number of foreign worker dormitories are run by companies linked to grassroots leaders of People’s Association (PA).
For example, Westlite Toh Guan is run by public-listed company Centurion Corporation Ltd, which has two “joint” chairpersons sitting on its board, namely David Loh Kim Kang and Han Seng Juan.
They were both given public service medals for “helping” out at Potong Pasir SMC under Member of Parliament (MP) Sitoh Yih Pin.
In the 2011 General Election, PAP managed to wrestle back the Potong Pasir ward from the opposition.
Another board member of Centurion Corporation, Chandra Mohan, is also a grassroots leader awarded with PBM and BBM in recognition of his contribution towards community services in Northwest Community Development Council (NWCDC). He is also a lawyer with Rajah & Tann, one of Singapore’s top legal firms.