Following public debates that have been raging for weeks about the abysmal living conditions of migrant workers in dormitories, Straits Times (ST) senior correspondent and former civil servant Toh Yong Chuan suggested five ways that the government can improve those conditions for these works.
In an article titled “Rethink mega dorms beyond Covid-19 outbreak” published today (14 May), the journalist quoted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his national address on 21 April where he said, “To our migrant workers, let me emphasise again, we will care for you like we care for Singaporeans.”
Mr Toh called for care and concern for migrant workers to be extended beyond the pandemic.
Squalid living conditions at purpose-built dorms
The first work permit holder with no history of trail to China to be infected with the deadly coronavirus was a 39-year old man from Bangladesh who is recovering after two months in the intensive care unit, said Mr Toh.
Mr Toh described how MOH has announced that the patient had visited Mustafa Centre, and stayed at The Leo dormitory, both of which eventually became coronavirus hotspots.
To date, about 23,000 migrant workers in dormitories have been infected with COVID-19, making up about 90 percent of the country’s total cases.
The journalist said in his article, “The high-density housing of the mini-townships became petri dishes that fuelled the spread of the virus.”
Mr Toh highlighted how migrant workers group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) had issued a warning about outbreaks in dormitories as early as 23 March in a letter published in ST just a week before the first dormitory cluster at S11 Dormitory @ Punggol was identified and subsequently isolated
When this happened, migrant worker dormitory living conditions under the spotlight. An article by Reuters in April included complaints by those interviewed of poor sanitation and cramps conditions. Several workers living in S11 Dormitory @ Punggol also told The Straits Times that shared that kitchens are infested with cockroaches and toilets are overflowing, while TOC reported overflowing rubbish bins along corridors.
These conditions are considered to by experts and activists to be a major factor in the COVID-19 outbreak within this sub-population in the country and many have called for significant improvements to be made to how migrant workers are taken care of in Singapore.
In his article, Mr Toh noted that the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) plan to build new facilities to house migrant workers who are slightly ill or no longer infectious is “timely”, saying that the it is time to relook the living situation of thousands of migrant workers.
Five suggestion to improve living conditions in dorms
Mr Toh’s first suggestion to is to reduce the density of these purpose-built dormitories to directly improve workers’ wellbeing. While acknowledging that the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s minimum living space requirement of 4.5 sq m per worker is higher that the guideline set by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) of 3.6 sq m per worker, Mr Toh suggests that the space should be at least double.
He also noted that the current facilities of one toilet, one wash basin and one shower for every 15 workers that dormitories here provide is much lower compare to the ILO’s recommendation of one of each for every six workers.
Improve medical facilities
The second suggestion is to increased the number of isolation rooms or sick bays in dormitories, which now only have one sick bay bed for every 1,000 beds.
Mr Toh noted that right now, about 7 percent of all migrant workers in dormitories are infected with COVID-19, meaning it needs about 70 sick bay beds for every 1,000 beds to accommodate the outbreak. Right now, “it is plain that one bed is adequate”, said Mr Toh.
Closely monitor dorm operators
Next, Mr Toh suggested better monitoring of dormitory operators to ensure they are meeting the minimum standards. Mr Toh highlighted that operators are meant to have ‘quarantine’ plans in place but one operator’s plan was to forcibly lock workers in a room after a roommate was diagnosed with COVID-19.
He then noted that half of the 43 purpose-built dormitories inspected by MOM last year breached license conditions, according to Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo.
Mr Toh said, “Greater transparency, similar to an annual report card published by the Commissioner for Workplace Safety and Health, can enhance the way these lodgings are run.”
Rethink operator mix
The fourth suggestion was to have operators run dormitories as social enterprises instead of for shareholder’s profits.
Mr Toh suggested that the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) could take this u.
“It has the financial resources, experience in property development and management, and the backing of the Government and employers. And as a labour movement, it will have its dormitory put workers, not profits, first,” said Mr Toh.
“An NTUC-run dormitory could set a benchmark for the rest to follow, as it has done in the supermarket, childcare and eldercare sectors.”
Follow army barracks model for future dorms
The senior journalist’s final suggestion was for the capacity of mega dormitories to be reduced, instead of tearing it down to build better facilities. Reducing capacity of existing mega dormitories and building future dormitories to match the model of army barracks could be a way to go.
Mr Toh said, “Like dormitories, army barracks also have double-decker beds in common rooms, shared facilities such as dining halls, toilets, showers and recreation spaces, but we do not hear of complaints of overcrowding.”
“If the space and density are adequate for national servicemen, they are good enough for workers,” he added.
Operators and taxpayers may push back
Mr Toh then acknowledged that these changes may not be favourable to dormitory operators, employers, and even members of the public.
“Fewer beds to rent out means lower revenue and profit, and this would prompt operators to raise rents. This, in turn, would push up costs for employers in housing these workers, and it would cascade down into higher costs for the people,” said the journalist.
As such, he asked, “Are Singaporeans willing, as a society, to pay more in such areas as construction and cleaning to improve the lot of these workers?”
Singapore’s policy on migrant worker housing started in the 1990s
In his article, Mr Toh also touched on the rise of mega dormitories in Singapore, with the birth of the policy of housing migrant workers in purposed built dormitories back in the 1990s when the government allotted land so that companies could build such self-contained dormitories to house their workers. This was ramped up in 2006 following a government committee’s recommendation, said Mr Toh.
This eventually led to the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act which came into effect in 2016. This, he said, was “hailed then as a major milestone as it set minimum standards on the living conditions for migrant workers and a licensing framework to regulate operators of dormitories with 1,000 or more beds.”
As more and more dormitories were built over the year, getting bigger and bigger, Mr Toh said he was “taken aback” by the density of the living spaces at Tuas View. However, he accepted it as an improvement from the shop houses and walk-up apartments in Geylang where workers used to live, which he described as “squalid”.
Mr Toh then noted that the building of these dormitories were accelerated in 2013 following the Little India Riots. He said, “Although the Committee of Inquiry found that migrant workers’ employment and living conditions were not the causes of the riot, it suggested that their housing be improved.”
Speaking to the profitability of these dormitories, Mr Toh noted that it has to do with economies of scale and a ‘captive clientele’.
Noting that some big companies that run some of the dormitories in Singapore have made millions over the years from dormitories and other businesses in 2019. This includes Centurion Corp, Wee Hur Holdings and Lian Beng Group which made $103.8 million, $34.9 million and $32.9 million, respectively.
He also mentioned a MOM report card released last year which stated that 86.3 percent of the 2,500 work permit holders polled said they were satisfied with working here, with good living conditions cited as one of the top five reasons.
However, before you take Mr Toh’s and MOM’s word for it, we have to look at a report by MOM in 2018 where it states that 92.7% WP Holders mentioned that they received the same salary amount as stated in the In-Principle-Agreement letter. Contrary to this narrative by MOM, TWC2, a migrant worker NGO states that otherwise. In 2014, it surveyed a total of 328 foreign workers and discovered that one-third of them were not paid what they were due and another one-third thought that they were paid correctly but had no real means to check. According to the NGO, it remains the same situation till today.
Going back to the living conditions, as what Alex Au presented in a recent webinar,
in pre-Covid times, workers rarely complain about their dorm arrangements, at least not until TWC2 opens a conversation about the matter with them.
This should not be taken to mean that they are happy with the dorms. When we start to ask what they think of their dorm accommodation, it’s a mix of answers, some quite positive, others very negative.
But mostly, there’s an air of resignation. They are acutely aware that if they raised it as an issue with their employers, it would displease the boss, and they might lose their jobs. In short, the men would put up with the situation in the larger interest of providing for their families.