Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin highlighted that the bad living conditions in dormitories are not the main reason for the massive outbreak of coronavirus among the migrant workers, but due to the contagious nature of the virus and the groups of people living in close quarters.
Mr Tan — a former Minister of Manpower from 2014 to 2015 — was speaking on the sidelines of an event for migrant worker dormitories on Thursday (7 May), noting that it is important not to conflate the issues of bad living conditions and the coronavirus pandemic, as reported by Straits Times on Friday (8 May).
“It doesn’t excuse (bad conditions), it is not acceptable and we need to take stringent action against those who violate the law – but it doesn’t represent the whole space and that’s the context that is important,” he noted.
In his remarks, Mr Tan compared the migrant worker dormitories and the university student hostels, saying that the student hostels would have had the same clusters as in the migrant worker dormitories if the hostels were not closed down amid the pandemic.
“For example, in our universities, if the hostels remained open and the students were there, you would expect a massive outbreak to occur as well. If people are living in close quarters, given the contagious nature of this virus, outbreaks will occur,” he remarked.
In response to the question about the Government’s actions to improve the living conditions in the dormitories, he noted that there are things that can be improved further and the Government will learn from the experience and make the necessary adjustments.
“It is something that we will work on, but meanwhile, let’s grapple with the (present) issues, look after our people and look after all the people who are here in Singapore who are affected in different ways,” he added.
The comparison between migrant worker dormitory room and university hostel room
The fact that there is an obvious gap in the room occupancy rate between a migrant worker dormitory room and a university hostel room, would it be fair to make a comparison between the two accommodations?
In a migrant worker dormitory, the occupancy rate is about 12 to 20 men per room.
Based on Sallie Yea’s research study, who is a lecturer of Interdisciplinary Studies at La Trobe University, Australia, the conditions in the migrant worker dormitories are “abhorrent”. One of the dormitories that she visited house up to 30 men in a room, with no air-conditioner or appropriate ventilation.
While in a university student hostel room, such as the National University of Singapore (NUS) hostel, the maximum number of occupants in a room is only two students per room, in which students can also choose to stay in a single room or a double room.
In terms of the rental cost, the lowest cost to rent a single room – with no air-conditioner – in the NUS hostel is S$390, while the cost to rent a double room – with no air-conditioner – is S$265.
As for the migrant worker dormitory room, the rental cost for one person may be varied depending on the types and location of the dormitory. According to a BBC report on 14 April 2015, a migrant worker who lives in Tuas View Dormitory said that his employer had to pay about S$220 per month for a bed and a locker, in a room shared with 12 men.
Moreover, in a typical migrant worker dormitory room, there is no air-conditioner nor a window, it only equipped with one ceiling fan for ventilation.
Cluster among migrant workers happened as early as February
Earlier on 3 April, it was reported that about 69 students and staff in the Ministry of Education (MOE) schools, including the students from the Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) have been infected with the COVID-19 virus.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) clarified that none of the cases have contracted the virus in schools, instead, all the cases contracted the virus from traveling in overseas, within households, social settings, and places outside of the schools – part-time student – except for the three cases which are still unlinked.
“In short, none of the 69 infections were traced back to MOE schools, including the IHLs,” MOH stated, adding that the information was based on contact tracing and its investigations.
In comparison to migrant worker cases, the warning signs appeared as early as in February when five migrant workers who worked at a project site at Seletar Aerospace Heights were confirmed to be infected with the virus on 18 February. The cases at Seletar Aerospace Heights formed the first cluster of COVID-19 involving migrant workers.
TWC2 has warned about the possibility of COVID-19 cluster in migrant worker dormitory
One of the factors that attributed to the massive outbreak among migrant workers is the fact that the groups of people are living in close quarters, Mr Tan highlighted in his remarks.
This point was previously being brought up by the President of TWC2, Deborah D. Fordyce in a letter to the Forum pages of the Straits Times on 23 March.
Ms Fordyce pointed out about migrant workers are being housed 12 to 20 men per room in double-decker beds and that they are being crammed at the back of the lorries when they go to work. She warned that this could risk a new cluster to emerge among the group.
Noting that it would be “unrealistic” to request to build additional dormitories in mere weeks or months, the non-government organisation urged the Government to announce in advance the plans to rehouse the workers if the outbreak emerged within the dormitories. Ms Fordyce claimed that this is to give reassurance to the resident as well as the non-resident community.
“Going forward, any new dormitory should require more space per head and no more than four persons to a room. New rules can also be put in place immediately regarding the maximum number of persons per lorry,” she stated.
Despite the warning by the TWC2, no actions were taken by the Government until the outbreak emerged within the massive population of migrant workers.
Currently, Singapore has recorded about 21,707 total infected cases, with 80% of the cases contributed by the cases among migrant workers.
The migrant worker dormitories shouldn’t be hindsight, Tan Chuan-Jin hinted
But in any case, Mr Tan seems to be hinting that it shouldn’t be hindsight that an outbreak has happened within the migrant worker dormitories as it is common sense that given people living together in close quarters would cause mass transmission of the virus.
This is contrary to the statements made by the Minister for National Development, Lawrence Wong, and the Minister for Manpower, Josephine Teo, who brought up excuses like hindsight and rewinding the clock when explaining the explosion of cases among migrant workers.
Mr Wong in a press conference on 9 April said that if he had known about how cases in migrant worker dormitories would later “explode” into big clusters, he would have done things differently.
He remarked, “Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of the benefit of hindsight.”
Ms Teo, on the other hand, quoted in an interview with the BBC on 22 April, “If we were to be able to rewind the clock, one could say that these safe distancing measures needed to go much further.”