About 11 new purpose-built dormitories (PBDs) with higher standards will be built in the next one to two years to house up to 100,000 workers, said the Ministry of Manpower and the Ministry of National Development in a joint press release on Monday (1 June).
As the COVID-19 situation comes “under control” and more recovered migrant workers are being cleared to resume work, the inter-agency task force is working with dormitory operators and employers on housing these workers, said the statement.
Short-term housing solution until new and improved dorms are constructed
Instead of sending these workers back to the overcrowded dormitories, some of them are being housed in various locations including army camps, sports halls, and vacant Housing and Development Board (HDB) and private apartments slated for redevelopment.
In the short-term, the Government is aiming to create additional space to house about 60,000 workers by the end of the year. These include new quick build dormitories (QBDs) that are low-density temporary structures which are fast to construct and will last for about two to three years. These will house around 25,000 workers.
Another 25,000 workers will be housed in currently unused state properties like former schools and vacant factories which will be outfitted to house workers. The rest will be house in construction temporary quarters (CTQs) at worksites.
The long-term goal, however, is to build new PBDs to replace these short-medium term housing, though the building programme will take several years to complete, said the Ministries. These new dorms will be like mini-towns with mini-marts, barber services, and indoor recreation facilities. The new dorms will also have well-spaced our blocks to ensure good ventilation and be equipped with ready access to medical care and support.
Once these PDBs are in place, the Government will then ‘decant’ workers from existing dormitories before giving the old dorms a major upgrade to meet these new and improved standards.
Improved living standards bench-marked to international standards
These improved standards the Government is developing will look into specifications of design, facilities, management, and regulation which will factor in social interaction and diseases response needs, said MOM and MND in the statement.
Noting that dorms are a practical approach to housing migrant workers in land-scarce Singapore, the Ministries stated that it aims to make dormitory living “more resilient to public health risks including pandemics” with improved living standards benchmarked domestically and internationally.
The new standards that will be piloted at the new QBDs include increasing the living space from 4.5sqm (including shared facilities) to at least 6sqm (not including shared facilities per resident), as well as limiting the number of beds to 10 per room and using only single deck beds with 1m spacing between them.
The previous allotment of at least 1 set of toilet, bathroom, sink, and urinal to 15 beds will be improved to at least 1 set of toilet, bathroom, and sink to 5 beds. As for sick bay and isolation facilities, the new dorms will have no less than 15 sick bays beds per 1,000 bed spaces.
This is a 15-fold improvement from the previous ratio of 1 to 1,000. New dorms will also have additional isolation spaced of 10 beds per 1,000 residents. This is a slight decrease from the current standard of 19 beds per 1,000 bed spaces.
Along with improved standards, the statement added that the Government is also looking into developing the new PBDs on a different model to the current one which releases land for commercial operators to bid, build, or operate.
Besides improving physical standards, the Government is also looking to uplift the capability of dorm operators and make adjustments to the living habits of dorm residents. According to the statement, the pilot program will “also seek to instil a new level of discipline on safe living within dormitories”, though no details were given on how this will be done.
Migrant workers living in squalid conditions for years
The improvement of living conditions at migrant worker dormitories have been a long time coming, but this was made even more urgent when the pandemic highlighted just how bad the situation was.
The squalid conditions at the migrant worker dormitories have drawn criticism from various activists and rights groups including veteran diplomat Tommy Koh, who expressed his anger at seeing how unfairly migrant workers are treated in by the Singapore government.
“The Government has allowed their employers to transport them in flatbed 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,” he said in a Facebook post on 6 April.
Professor Koh, who chairs the Centre for International Law at the National University of Singapore, expressed his anger at how the migrant workers are treated.
“I feel angry when I see foreign workers sitting on the ground eating their lunch. I see exhausted foreign workers stretched out on the ground to rest,” he expressed.
These conditions, said Professor Koh, should serve as “a wake-up call” for Singapore to “treat our indispensable foreign workers like a First World country should and not in the disgraceful way in which they are treated now”.
On the same day, there were also new reports on the unsanitary and crowded living conditions in two dormitories which were gazetted as isolation areas – S11 Dormitory @ Punggol and Westlite Toh Guan – where kitchens are infested with cockroaches, toilets are overflowing, and rubbish bins are flooded with garbage.
Teo: Living standards have to be improved but virus containment comes first
Also on the same day, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo agreed that the living standards in migrant worker dormitories should be raised. However, she said that her Ministry will first focus its efforts on the “enormous task” of containing the COVID-19 transmissions at dormitories.
In a Facebook post, the Minister noted that dormitories are licensed under the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act which required operators to comply with a set of licence conditions including maintaining standards for cleanliness, water supply, sanitation, and hygiene of premises.
“Singapore Ministry of Manpower officers conduct regular inspections at dormitories to ensure that licence conditions are adhered to, and do not hesitate to take strong enforcement actions against operators who provide poor accommodation to their resident workers,” Ms Teo remarked.
She also stated that before PBDs were built, many migrant workers were living in poor and unhygienic conditions as employers would often house them at work sites in unregulated housing.
Ms Teo went on to assure the public that the MOM is keen to tackle the issue similar to how it initiated the WorkRight, Workfare, and Workcare to support low-wage workers. However, the Ministry needed to focus on the task at hand of containing the virus before dealing with improving dormitory living conditions in a dedicated way.
She asserted, “Let us cross this important hurdle during this “circuit breaker”, and then we can deal with this issue in a dedicated way. You have my word.”