The recent explosion in the number of COVID-19 cases in Singapore has brought the poor living conditions faced by migrant workers to light after a wave of infections emerged among the country’s massive migrant workers population.
The coronavirus outbreak has revealed the cramped and unsanitary environments that migrant workers in Singapore have been enduring for years, a story which has now has been making rounds in the international news outlets.
To share a glimpse of life in these dormitories, Singaporean writer Keith Neubronner shared on Facebook (25 April) the photos he took when he was staying at a migrant worker dormitory in Yishun back in October 2013.
“I’m not sharing to draw any attention to myself, and neither do I claim to be some sort of champion for migrant workers’ rights, but perhaps through this we all get a glimpse of what it’s like to actually live in such an environment,” Mr Neubronner remarked.
Mr Neubronner wrote that after returning from a pilgrimage to Brazil and witnessing the many lives of homeless people, he was moved to hear stories of real people who leave their homes just to earn a bit more.
In hopes of gaining an experience living in such an environment, he made arrangements with the dormitory manager in Yishun to spend three nights in the migrant worker dormitory.
The three-storey dormitory housed about 500 people, Mr Neubronner estimated. He hinted that the first thing that caught his attention was how crowded the dormitory was, as there were 10 people in a room, with only four bunk beds, while two people had to sleep on the floor.
No mattresses were provided to them, only wooden bedframes, he noted.
“The residents weren’t too keen on me taking photos of inside their rooms, but believe me when I say it’s stuffy and crowded. Just enough space for beds and maybe a chair or two. Whatever clothes each of them had were probably hanging outside to dry,” Mr Neubronner asserted.
The rooms were rented by companies that employ workers from different countries, so it was not surprising to see people of different cultures and races in each room. He added that the rent costs S$80 a month per person, which is paid for by their employers.
“The workers worked in construction and other odd jobs (painters, grasscutters), and took home an average of $800 per month,” Mr Neubronner stated. “Many told me they were university graduates. They were ‘lured’ to coming here just to earn more money.”
According to Mr Neubronner, the workers have to wake up as early as 5.45am to get ready for work, adding that they often lacked sleep at night. He said he noticed the lights were out by 12 midnight, but residents didn’t always get to sleep immediately.
“Some might sleep earlier than midnight, but with up to 10 in a room, it’s not difficult to have trouble sleeping if someone is on the phone speaking to a loved one, or is coughing,” he wrote.
The workers travel to work via lorries that will pick them up from 6am onward, and most workers will return from work at around 8.30pm at night.
Mr Neubronner also revealed that the workers were crammed into the back of a truck which maxed out its 23-passenger limit.
Mr Neubronner also pointed out that the workers’ meals usually comprised of rice, curry, and an omelette.
Meanwhile, he took another photo of the cooking area in the dormitory, which shows that there were only 30 to 40 cookers for all the workers to share.
Mr Neubronner said, “What your buddy in your room cooks for dinner, you just eat. Can’t be fussy.”
This long cement sink was the place where the workers will wash their vegetables and poultry, the same sink for them to brush teeth and wash clothes, according to Mr Neubronner.
He described the long cement sink as a “stomach-turning sight”.
As for the dormitory’s toilets, Mr Neubronner noted that the toilets were all squatting kinds and there were no doors for the cubicles. In fact, there were no heaters in the showers and no toilet paper being provided for the workers.
He also indicated the squatting toilets made his “stomach turn”.
Mr Neubronner also took a photo of the “lounge” in the dormitory, which was equipped with an old television that has only free-to-air channels.
“This area was also the ‘lounge’, where workers sat around, sometimes gazing at the stars, others speaking to loved ones back home. That’s it for downtime really,” he wrote.