Singapore’s COVID-19 cases have soared by a single-day record of 528 cases today (30 April), bringing the national tally to 16,169 at the time of writing. The infection had escalated among the country’s massive migrant workers’ population, which prompted the government to gazette 25 dormitories as isolation areas so far.
The coronavirus outbreak seems to have uncovered the cramped and unsanitary environments that migrant workers in Singapore have been enduring for years, a revelation that has drawn attention from many international news outlets.
Just today, The Conversation – Australia-based independent news source – published an article authored by a lecturer of Interdisciplinary Studies at La Trobe University, Sallie Yea, who conducted a research on transient migrant workmen from India and Bangladesh in Singapore back in 2014 to 2015.
In the article, the author described the migrant workers’ living conditions that she discovered from the study and quoted, “These living and working conditions explain why we are seeing such high rates of COVID-19 infections now.”
Ms Yea criticized the Singapore government’s slow action and said that the government should have been better prepared for a possible outbreak among the migrant workers, but instead “it turned a blind eye to their needs”.
“When the government issued face masks to all Singaporeans at the first sign of COVID-19 in early February, migrant workers were excluded. (The philanthropic arm of a state investor later distributed more than 1 million masks to migrant workers and domestic helpers.)” she wrote.
Noting that the government has imposed a stay-at-home order for 180,000 migrant workers in the construction industry until 4 May, Ms Yea said that many advocacy groups have warned that quarantining large groups of people could lead to higher chances of virus transmission.
Ms Yea cited a quote from Debbie Fordyce, who is a longtime migrant worker rights advocate, “When returning Singapore students were given a two-week holiday in five-star hotels rather than be a potential source of infection to their family, these men are being bunched together with a far higher vulnerability than if they were in a space alone or with fewer people.”
The outbreak has triggered fear among the workers as they are being confined in their quarters and are only allowed outside their rooms at certain times to reduce contact with others, said Ms Yea.
One Bangladeshi migrant worker who participated in her research study, Monir, sent an email to Ms Yea last week and said that the workers are currently in lockdown for two months and are unable to go out.
“We are lucky we not stay worker’s dormitory. We sleep at Geylang company store,” he wrote.
Stressing that the outbreak is not an exceptional time for the migrant workers, Ms Yea quoted that “migrant workers’ rights have long been ignored because they are transient and, for the most part, deemed disposable”.
Migrant workers’ living conditions are abhorrent, according to Sallie Yea’s study
Based on the article, Ms Yea had interviewed almost 200 men in over 18 months, which mostly worked in the construction and shipping industries, and some of them worked in the landscaping and cleaning sectors.
The research study uncovered stories of routine labour exploitation and debt bondage among the workers, where she discovered that most workers were living in a “shockingly substandard” environment.
According to Ms Yea, the workers complained that the food they received was often comprised of just soggy rice and gravy, which are usually spoiled and inedible. She added that many migrant workers were living in the cramped, purpose-built dormitories (PBDs).
“The conditions are abhorrent: cramped rooms housing up to 30 men apiece, no air-conditioning or appropriate ventilation, bed bugs and cockroaches, and often just one filthy toilet shared by more than 80 people,” Ms Yea wrote.
Two men will take turns using one bed in the dormitories. For instance, when the day-shift worker returns to the room to sleep, he will use the bed while the night-shift worker is working.
However, she noted that not all of the migrant workers are living in dormitories. Some of them live on the upper floors of small construction subcontracting firms, or in shipping containers and other temporary housing on worksites.
Ms Yea also highlighted in the article that such living conditions have caused dengue and other waterborne diseases to emerge among the workers’ population.
“A few weeks before I arrived in Singapore in 2012, there was a massive outbreak of dengue among migrant workers in the industrial northwest. Many men were infected, and most swiftly deported,” she quoted.
Ms Yea shared the story of five Bangladeshi men who were pursuing a case of unpaid salary against their employer in 2015. She was told that the workers were pushed by their employer to work longer hours despite not getting paid, after some workers contracted dengue and deported back to their countries.
“The deportation of injured and sick workers is a common occurrence in Singapore,” she added.
She further asserted, “The government does have a salary and injury claims system for migrant workers, but NGOs in the country claim it – like policies to improve workers’ living conditions – is woefully inadequate.”
S’pore govt builds large dorms in remote areas, separating migrant workers from the rest of S’pore population
When migrant-rights organisations began to bring upon workers’ housing conditions to the government, Ms Yea said the government’s response was to build large dormitories in remote and outlying areas where the workers would be separated spatially from the rest of Singapore’s population.
“This enabled the government to claim it had addressed criticisms of poor worker housing. At the same time, it ensured these workers were further separated spatially and socially from the rest of Singapore’s population,” Ms Yea wrote.
She further asserted that the separation has been an ongoing concern of the government since the Little India riots in 2013, which happened after a migrant worker was hit by a bus and died. The accident has sparked a riot in which over 50 police officers and eight civilians were hurt, and dozens of Indian workers were charged with offences and some of them were sent home.