Between 19 to 23 April, the Ministry of Health (MOH) has reported 4,914 new positive cases of COVID-19 amongst migrant workers living in dormitories. At the moment, out of the 11,178 cases in Singapore, about 81.2% percent are migrant workers livings in dorms.
While National Development Minister Lawrence Wong asserted in a recent press briefing that the sharp increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases in dorms were due to the increase in testing that is being carried out amongst workers there, the world took notice of this sharp spike. In an instant, Singapore went from being an example and shining beacon for outbreak management in the reason to a cautionary tale.
When cases started to rise amongst the migrant worker population living in dormitories, a spotlight was placed over the living conditions are these dorms, many of which have been declared as isolation areas, meaning that workers are required to stay in their rooms most of the time.
In February, the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) put out a statement to highlight the risks faced by migrant workers during the covid-19 pandemic.
In a statement on its website, the non-government organisation for migrant workers welfare and rights, said that it is important to consider the imbalance of power between employers and low wage migrant workers on work permit, pointing out that many of these workers rely on their employers to provide them with timely and accurate information on government advisories and laws.
“Indeed, it is the responsibility of employers to keep them informed,” stressed the organisation, adding that it is difficult for the workers themselves to stay updated when most of these announcements are made in languages that migrants workers may not understand.
But beyond the information problem, NGOs have also pointed out that they’ve been raising concerns over the living conditions at such dorms for long before the pandemic even hit Singapore’s shores.
Recently, Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large Professor Tommy Koh had commented on the country’s treatment of migrant workers, , describing it as “third world”. He said in a Facebook post:
“…The government has allowed their employers to transport them in flat bed 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. Singapore should treat this as a wake up call to treat our indispensable foreign workers like a First World country should and not in the disgraceful way in which they are treated now..
In early April, voluntary welfare organisation Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) 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.
This clearly makes it difficult for migrant workers to practice safe distancing measures within the dormitories.
MOM’s response to the spike in cases
Now, when concerns were raised in February over a possible outbreak among migrant workers as the first few cases in this group were confirmed, Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo has said that the “key objective is to ensure the health and well-being of everyone, not just of our own people but also foreign workers helping our economy… We want to give foreign workers the assurance that the measures we take are in their interest as well as their well-being.”
And more recently, following questions from the media about the spike in cases among migrant workers, Ms Teo had said that workers gathering for social activities such as cooking, eating and relaxing together led to the escalating numbers of COVID-19 cases in some foreign workers dormitories “in quick succession” despite the safe distancing measure being put in place. Netizens were not buying this line of reasoning.
In contrast, her colleague Mr Lawrence Wong who is the minister for national development has said that f he had known about how cases in migrant worker dormitories would later “explode” into big clusters, he would have done things differently.
He further said that the government did not have the luxury of hindsight in relation to the handling of the outbreak of COVID-19 among the blue collar migrant labour in Singapore.
Rather than hindsight, based on what Josephine Teo said in February, were the Ministers simply complacence and subsequently caught off guard?
Where does the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act come into play?
All this then leads us to asking some serious questions about the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act (FEDA) which was passed into law in 2015.
When the bill was read for a second time in Parliament, then-Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin had said that dormitory operators could be asked to develop quarantine plans in the event of an infectious diseases outbreak.
Specifically, Mr Tan was talking about licensing conditions that the Commissioner appointed under the FEDA could impose on licensed dormitories. As an example, Mr Tan said, “operators must develop quarantine plans, in the event of an infectious disease outbreak, and provide sufficient sick bay facilities, based on guidelines set by the Ministry of Health.”
However, the way things have unfolded these past two months clearly show that migrant worker dormitory operators do not actually have such plans in place. That’s why the MOH has had to intervene to help keep infection rates in check by providing not only medical assistance but also creating make-shift sick bays to cope with insufficiency.
Now, according to the FEDA, a commissioner appointed under the Act will be tasked the responsibility of enforcing the particular legislation. As Mr Tan said back in 2015, this Commissioner has the prerogative to impose licensing conditions that would require operators to ensure better facilities and maintenance, which should include developing quarantine plans.
Who should have imposed and demanded the quarantine plan requirement?
With that, the question is: Who is the commissioner?
A search of the Government Gazette revealed that no commissioner has been appointed under the Act since it was passed into law. In fact, only deputy and assistant commissioners have been appointed so far.
The two assistant commissioners are Sharon Sam Wei Ling and Loh Meng Siang while the deputy commissioner is Shireen Banu d/o Gulam Mohamed. They were all appointed between April and December of 2017.
Given that there isn’t a commissioner who has been appointed under the case, this would mean that the purview of the Act falls directly under the Manpower Minister who would be in charge.
Since 2015, Singapore has had three manpower ministers: Tan Chian-Jin (2012-2015), Lim Swee Say (2015-2018) and Josephine Teo (2018-incumbent). So the question is why have none of these ministers, in their time, addressed this particular issue of having a quarantine plan in place at migrant worker dormitories?
Even before the virus first arrived in Singapore, a multi-ministry task force, which includes MOM, was formed to direct a whole-of-government response to the pandemic. Early on, the MOH and issued advisories to encourage people to adhere to better hygiene standards, the messages were also sent out to schools.
As for the Ms Teo with the MOM, focus was placed on encouraging employers to ensure safe distancing measures were adhered to at workplaces, and later, to shift to work-from-home arrangements were necessary. Penalties were implemented for employers who failed to do so and warnings were given to say that the ministry would not hesitate to revoke work passes and withdraw related privileges from employers or labourers who do not comply with the new entry rules.
MOM also rolled out nightly allowances to support firms affected by Malaysia’s lockdown orders implemented in mid-March which led to many Malaysian workers opting to stay in Singapore, thus needing last minute accommodation arrangements to be made.
So as Singapore saw the spread of COVID-19 in China, why didn’t the Minister check on the dormitories if they have their quarantine plans in place — if they have not done it in the past? Isn’t this a lapse on the part of the ministry and Minister?
Another thing that was curiously not addressed were the living conditions of migrant worker dormitories and how that plays into the evolving pandemic situation among this group of the population, despite the fact that NGO’s had already started sounding the alarms back in February after the first case of a migrant worker being infected.
Ms Teo made no mention of dormitory conditions nor did she layout any plans or measures specific to dormitory operators on order to mitigate an outbreak and curb the spread of the virus in those areas.
So it appears that the outbreak we’re currently witnessing in migrant worker dormitories could be a result of inaction on the part of the country’s manpower ministers, past and present.