Cycle of vulnerability, discrimination “will not be alleviated with a vaccine”: SMU researchers highlight problematic aspects of S’pore’s regulatory framework for migrant workers in containing spread of COVID-19

Poorly-timed intervention, extreme isolation and the heavy deployment of mass surveillance are some of the problematic aspects critiqued by Singapore Management University (SMU) researchers in Singapore’s regulatory framework for migrant workers in its COVID-19 pandemic response.

In a research paper titled “The Vulnerability Project: Migrant Workers in Singapore”, researchers from the Centre for AI and Data Governance at the SMU School of Law said that “shortcomings in prediction and early intervention had led to more radical control responses, with discriminatory consequences” against vulnerable groups, most notably migrant workers.

Research associates Jane Loo and Josephine Seah, and Mark Findlay, director of the centre posited that even if the COVID-19 pandemic has “sometimes functioned as a leveler” among all groups in society, certain groups may still be more disproportionately affected as a result of certain vulnerabilities.

The treatment of migrant workers by authorities during the pandemic

Socioeconomic inequalities, as well as other forms of setbacks faced by such groups before the pandemic, they observed, have been amplified by “often-late timed intervention” by the government.

A striking example is the mandated containment of migrant workers within their dormitories, despite social distancing measures being virtually impossible in such dormitories due to a lack of space.

The researchers noted that the authorities had overlooked the risk of an outbreak in the dormitories despite warnings from rights groups and migrant workers themselves at the onset of the outbreak in Singapore.

Even as far back as 2008, migrant workers’ advocates have cautioned against how the “overcrowded, ill-ventilated, and unsanitary housing habitats of migrant workers” could be detrimental to migrant workers’ health, they noted.

“The risk was only acknowledged much later when the sharp rises of infection in the migrant worker community made it impossible to continue ignoring the exposure unique to this community.

“Only after the virus took hold in worker dormitories did authorities devise a plan to reduce the number of workers living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, identifying alternative accommodation, and implement a medical support plan for the migrant workers in contained accommodation.

“By then, it was already too late to employ the ‘circuit breaker’ regime imposed in the general community,” said the researchers.

The majority of Singapore migrant workers, the researchers stressed, are housed in purpose-built dormitories where 12 to 20 men share a single room.

Approximately 300,000 or more migrant workers reside in these facilities, “where important elemental habitation essentials such as adequate space and sanitary conditions are routinely absent”.

Thus, the risk of infection is exacerbated in these quarters as outbreaks of diseases are more frequent and severe in such high population densities, the researchers warned.

Such structural indicators “make the prediction of vulnerability and the indication of degrees of potential risk foreseeable and reasonably accurate”, they said.

“Yet, repeated failures in early risk prediction, assessment, and intervention in many communities have left numerous vulnerable groups exposed and adversely impacted by the disease and its consequent control strategy constriction,” said the researchers.

Few to no recourse for workers against discriminatory outcomes

Quarantining migrant workers and limiting them to their dormitories, said the researchers, have resulted in the deterioration of the workers’ mental health.

“Under strict laws not to leave their dormitories, some workers have likened it to serving an imprisonment term,” the researchers noted.

This, in addition to the “lack of sanitation, ventilation, adequate space, concerns over job security, and fear of
contracting the virus” have led to cases of workers attempting suicide in the dormitories.

Institutions that are “otherwise well-positioned to address and alleviate vulnerabilities”, they added, are “often distracted by impetuses, such as market pressures, neoliberal attitudes to welfare nets, and the migration industry complex” from exploring ways to equitably address problems in managing COVID-19 risks among migrant workers.

Other than migrant workers, other vulnerable groups in Singapore such as the elderly may also suffer “discriminatory outcomes” that arise from legal and political frameworks that “create, reinforce, and perpetuate conditions of vulnerability”.

“For example, discrimination of the elderly in Singapore may arise as a result of the State’s lack of factoring in their digital literacy,” said the researchers.

This is more apparent for the elderly who live outside institutional care where support and comfort are normally provided by family, friends and neighbours.

Lockdown regimes such as the circuit-breaker in March last year “have shifted their lives from communal interaction to one of isolation, confusion and despair”, the researchers observed.

Another problem highlighted by the researchers in State-sponsored technological deployment in pandemic control measures is that citizens and residents “have no legislated recourse against any government-mandated surveillance”.

Noting that the Singapore Constitution does not include a right to privacy, they noted that only limited remedies for personal data violations are available in private law in the form of financial compensation, for example.

“There is also qualified public law personal data protection legislation directed separately at the private sector and the State,” they added.

While the use of technological means such as contact tracing systems have been an integral part of the fight against COVID-19 in different countries globally, the researchers argued that fighting the pandemic is “no blanket justification for States to implement COVID digital technologies without sufficient care and scrutiny”.

Vulnerable groups, they stressed, are often “more heavily” affected by the possible negative consequences arising from such a lack of care and scrutiny.

“For the migrant worker population, vulnerability and consequent discrimination too often has a difficult socio-political heritage that complicates and challenges the development of equitable and efficacious prevention and control policies,” said the researchers.

Thus, directly acknowledging and addressing discriminatory outcomes for migrant workers “necessitates concern for human dignity, individual autonomy, and self-determination”, they posited.

“If the pandemic is to have any positive byproduct, it is in exposing the existing cracks in our sociopolitical systems that foster risk, vulnerability, and discrimination cycles,” said the researchers, noting that such cycles “will not be alleviated by a vaccine” alone.

Workers at dorms continued to be treated as prisoners even with no new cases

Alex Au of migrant workers’ rights group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) told BBC last month that it is concerning that Singapore continues to treat the workers as prisoners even though the same statement by the ministry says that ‘since October, no new cases were detected in the dormitories on many days’.”

Mr Au said this after the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and Ministry of Health (MOH) revealed on 14 December that close to 152,794 migrant workers living in dormitories have had the COVID-19 virus, which is 47 per cent of the 323,000 total migrant workers.

Since the active infection rate is virtually zero and these workers are tested every two weeks, there is no need for the Government to place such strict restrictions on them, Mr Au posited.

He also explained that even healthy workers are only permitted to leave their dorms and be taken to their worksites and sometimes to designated shops near their dorms.

“There is no justification for Singapore to treat migrant workers like prisoners,” said Mr Au.

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