Josephine Teo implies that migrant workers’ daily living habits are what caused the pandemic to spread instead of owning up to MOM’s earlier lapses and inaction

Minister for Manpower, Josephine Teo has addressed Parliament in relation to her department’s housing plans for migrant workers in Singapore. She started the session with an update of the current situation which was full of self praise for the “remarkable” progress her team have made. She focused on the 40,000 migrant workers from the dormitories who have been cleared of Covid-19 and who are are able to resume work.

While it is great to have a progress report, what is glaringly obvious is a steadfast refusal from her or anyone from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to put their hand up and concede that their inaction in February when migrant worker infections were first made public had contributed to the spread of the virus in the first place.

Instead, Teo made it point to emphasise that the pandemic “is something we have never experienced before“.

Obviously, she has missed the point. No one ever thought that she or the MOM could have prevented the pandemic. All critics are saying is that the wildfire spread might have been reduced if the MOM had acted sooner.

Countries like New Zealand and Taiwan have not experienced the pandemic before either but they did better because of early and decisive intervention. Clearly, this is something that neither Teo nor anyone in government is willing to admit.

Can we learn from our mistakes if we refuse to admit that we made mistakes in the first place?

The second half of her speech detailed plans going forward to improve things. Among other plans, she highlighted a new access code feature on the SG workpass app which will enable the migrant workers, the dormitory operators as well as the employers to know if they have been cleared to resume work. While this is plausible in theory, has MOM thought about the practicalities?

Looking at how the “Trace Together” app has not really been successful, how will this app for migrant workers pan out? Is the MOM going to force every migrant worker to download the app when authorities in Singapore have not forced Singaporeans to download the “Trace Together” app?

Teo further said : “Given Singapore’s land constrains, dormitories are a practical way to housing our migrant workers. This is unlikely to change. What will need to change however are the specifications as well as the management of the dormitories including the daily living habits of the dormitory residents……”

Instead of owning up to the overcrowding in dormitories, it is noteworthy that Teo appears to be shifting the blame by implying that it was the “daily living habits of the dormitory residents” that had to change.

Given that some Singaporeans are already labouring under misguided notions of migrant workers being “dirtier”, Teo’s statements are irresponsible and could encourage further misconception and racism. The fact that the world is is practicing social distancing as a means to cut down virus transmission, it is clear that the virus is spread by proximity and not hygiene standards per se and given that it is the government’s policies that have enabled the tight dormitory living arrangements, Teo’s apparent attempt to deflect is disingenuous.

Besides, if Singapore is so land scarce, why not just have less migrant workers then? Surely, if you have land constrains, the answer is to reduce the number of people. It really is pretty simple. Instead of critiquing migrant worker living habits, why not change our government’s one track mind in relation to our country’s over reliance on cheap foreign labour?

Teo went on to say that we would always have to “work on the assumption that the risk will always be present in a dormitory just like the risk is present in any household. A dormitory will always be a big household…. but there must also be discipline in the practice of hygiene and segregation. On luxury cruise ships and even aircraft carriers, the virus can spread easily and in those settings, room arrangements, you don’t have many people sharing and in aircraft carriers the discipline level will be quite high”

There are many fallacies in her statements. Firstly, a dormitory is not really a “large household”. It is more akin to overcrowding. Does the average large household in Singapore have between eight to 12 people sharing a room?

Secondly, her comparison of dormitory conditions to luxury cruise ships and aircraft carriers is not a fair comparison. People have a choice to get onto luxury cruise ships and air crafts. The housing arrangements were imposed on the the migrant workers.

Besides, I don’t know any cruise ship where eight to 12 people share a room? Air plane rides are also for a specific time period- they are not living quarters. The is issue is clearly not about hygiene standards but about overcrowded living conditions.

Teo even goes so far as to say that the dormitory operators can help in instilling “discipline” in the migrant workers as if we are somehow superior. Not only is this patronising and demeaning, this blame shifting is also tiresome and irresponsible. Not only is she deflecting from the fact that the government had contributed to the spread of the virus, she is seemingly victim shaming!

If you have to share a room with eight to 12 other people, there is no way you can be as hygienic as compared to you having the room to yourself. This is not a lack of discipline on the part of the migrant workers. More people create more mess. That is common sense. Nothing to do with discipline.

She ends off by saying that her improvements will enable Singaporeans to continue to “benefit from the contributions “of our migrant workers. Given her statements, she really should have replaced the word “contributions” with “exploitation”. At least that would be more honest.




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June 2020