Govt restrictions on migrant workers’ freedom of movement should be measured against S’pore’s international law obligations, SMU researchers opine

The Singapore government’s restriction on migrant workers’ freedom of movement should be measured against the country’s international law obligations, said researchers from the Singapore Management University (SMU).

In a paper titled “The Vulnerability Project: Migrant Workers in Singapore”, researchers from the Centre for AI and Data Governance at the SMU School of Law noted that Singapore had accepted the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and its obligations in 2017.

Such obligations include “adopting all necessary measures to eliminate racial discrimination, and to prevent and combat racist doctrines and practices in order to […] build an international community free from all forms of racial segregation and racial discrimination”.

Research associates Jane Loo and Josephine Seah, and Mark Findlay, director of the centre posited that a possible answer to such obligations is that “extreme measures are not determined by race, but rather on health vulnerabilities and community protection”.

“Even so, the racial profile of this disadvantaged sector of Singapore residents is almost entirely South Asian or mainland Chinese. No Singaporean citizens have been caught in this quarantine,” said the researchers.

Moreover, when Singapore entered Phase 3 of its reopening, migrant workers were still not allowed to leave their dormitories and mix with the community, except for when they need to go to work.

“Migrant workers mostly remain quarantined to their dormitory spaces, offering no scope for them to engage in unfettered social activities or to resume their lives pre-COVID (to the same limited extent permitted in the community)… By further restricting their interactions to simply work and rest, their individual dignity and autonomy are challenged, entrenching their social vulnerability further,” the paper noted.

In October last year, the government announced that eligible workers were allowed to visit recreation centres on their off days and at staggered hours.

However, these workers have to meet the eligibility which includes being recovered from COVID-19 and have immunity from the disease or tested negative under the government’s routine testing regime.

Additionally, the dorm in which the worker is staying must be free of any COVID-19 active cases.

“Despite this concession, how eligibility for this limited freedom is ultimately secured (or lost) by a worker is still unclear. The “visitation numbers” to these recreational facilities are not released to the public and therefore it cannot be openly determined how many workers are allowed to access this resource.”

The researchers also noted that when the risk of suicide among these workers was presented to the government, it stated that suicide rate of migrant workers is not as high as the previous year.

“Implicit in this statement is the State’s acknowledgment that the mental health of the migrant worker population has always been an issue; underscoring the project’s assumption that migrant workers are a distinctly vulnerable occupational group.

“As such, diagnostic risk prediction of harm in pandemic conditions was and continues to be a necessary and responsible harm-minimisation strategy,” they said.

On top of that, quarantine and isolation also resulted in restrictions of the workers’ freedom and liberty.

“The State imposed different travel restrictions on the migrant worker population that do not apply to Singapore society at large. While the community remained free to travel abroad at their own risk to countries with open borders, migrant workers were prevented from returning to their hometowns,” they said.

These workers were also not allowed to their home country despite being tested negative for the coronavirus.

“Employers’ reluctance to facilitate repatriation produced a sharper sense of incarceration and deprivation of even the most limited self-determination,” said the researchers.

Researchers question if herd immunity was explored as a containment strategy

According to expert, in order for herd community to be achieved in dormitories, at least 70 to 80 per cent of the population in the dorm would have to be infected first.

Herd community is when a large portion in the community becomes immune to an infectious disease either via vaccination or by natural infection and developing antibodies.

This strategy was ruled out by Singapore’s Ministry of Health right from the beginning as it explained that it was “too big a price for us to pay” and that the high number of infections and death will collapse the healthcare system.

“That said, the virus was allowed to run its course within the migrant worker dormitories where quarantining efforts and movement control measures produced large scale virus incubation and infection.

“In any case, science is uncertain about how and for how long a person cured of the virus can rely on immunity,” the researchers said.

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