A year on from the pandemic and migrant workers living in dormitories are still not allowed to leave their rooms except to use the toilets.
In the programme Talking Point, one migrant worker, Omar Sakid, said that he has to eat in his room with his 11 other roommates, noting that “there are so many restrictions still in my dorm, so I feel like I’m in lockdown”.
At the time of writing, Singapore has recorded a total of 60,152 cases. Of those, 54,511 are migrant workers living in dormitories. By December, almost half—47 percent—of migrant workers living in dormitories had been infected with COVID-19, said the Ministry of Health.
Authorities noted that as of 13 December, 54,505 such workers have tested positive for the virus via a polymerase chain reaction or PCR test while another 98,289 had a positive result from a serology test, which is used to test for a previous infection.
Now, while prevailing scientific data tells us that a person who has recovered from the virus can only spread it if they are reinfected—which is itself a possibility—the question does remain why migrant workers in dormitories are still being so strictly controlled.
Most of these workers are already allowed to return to work, so why aren’t they allowed to live freely within their dorms at the very least?
One worker said in Talking Points that he lives in a smaller room that he was in previously, with 10 people though the room is fitted with 16 beds which takes up space and make the room overcrowded.
The lack of space and inability to move around freely to hang out with friends to socialise with people outside of their rooms is taking a toll on these workers.
“(It’s) like (being) in jail, just eating, watching a movie and then … lying in bed, resting,” he said. “That’s why it’s very hard for us,” said one worker, Richard Rosales.
Another, a safety co-ordinator named Rashed Mohammad said he has seen the effects because his job is “to take care (of) all my (workers)”.
“Every single person has a different feeling,” he said. “A few of them say they’re very bored because … they can’t go on home leave, so they miss their family. A few of them say they’re not so good, mentally.”
Though the government did set up a task force named Project Dawn in November to enhance mental care support for migrant workers living in dormitories, the toll this continued lockdown is having on these workers continues to rise.
“There is no justification for Singapore to treat migrant workers like prisoners,” Alex Au of the charity Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) told the BBC in an article in December 2020.
“Many have been locked in for eight months.”
Mr Au also noted in the article that workers who tested positive for the virus during the middle of 2020 told TWC2 that they were instructed to stay in their rooms and were not isolated. They remained in contact with their roommates were not tested positive.
“But this is history,” Mr Au went on.
“We’re more concerned 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’.”
He argues that since the active infection rate is virtually zero and workers are tested regularly every two weeks, there is no reason to place such hard restrictions on them.
He highlighted that at the time, even healthy workers were only allowed to be taken out to their work sites and occasionally shop at near their dorms. This hasn’t changed since December, based on the recent Talking Points episode.
“Workers are still interned and treated like prisoners, used for their labour with no freedom of movement,” Mr Au said in December.
This still rings true months later.
FDWs allowed to travel freely after recovery but not migrant workers?
But even with this initiative, we need to ask ourselves and the government is why workers are still confined to their rooms, and have their movements strictly controlled even after they have recovered from the virus?
Especially given that Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs) who have recovered from a previous COVID-19 infection are allowed to enter the country and forego the quarantine period?
In response to a query from TOC, MOH said that FDWs with a recent travel history to higher-risk countries/regions will have to take an on-arrival serology test. This protocol was implemented starting 5 February 2021, said MOH Quality Service Manager Yasmin Nisha.
The on-arrival serology test will be done in addition to the on-arrival polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test requirement that has been in place since 24 January this year.
“The additional on-arrival serology test will allow for the identification of workers who have recovered from an old COVID-19 infection and have antibodies,” said MOM.
“They can therefore be released from SHN.”
This basically means that FDWs are allowed to mingle with the community. They’re allowed to go out and about unrestricted, adhering to prevailing safety measures that the rest of the community had to follow as well.
So why the double standard when it comes to migrant workers living in dormitories in Singapore who have already recovered from the virus? Why are they still made to still suffer living in cramped conditions in these dorms and be further victimised by the strict restrictions imposed upon them?
What differentiates between these two groups of people?
These restrictions on migrant workers here apply beyond dormitories too, with workers only allowed to go to purpose-built recreation centres on their rest days, for a limited time of just three hours. Taking into account travel time and errands, this leave little to no time at all for them to meet up with friends, socialise, or properly enjoy their time outside of the forms.
Martin Koh, deputy chief of plans at the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM’s) Assurance, Care and Engagement Group appealed in the episode for operators to be given “some time” to make more space in these workers’ rooms.
He also noted that workers are not allowed to take public transport to travel to and from work at all, to reduce the risk of transmission. Employers arrange private transport to ferry workers to and from jobsites, and Mr Koh encouraged employers to arrange transport for other activities as well.
However, he added that he doesn’t see this transport restriction changing as long as COVID-19 sticks around. Though he did say there would be “positive changes this quarter” in relation to the “frequency of visits to the recreation centres and for longer”.