Singapore’s migrant workers on front line of coronavirus shutdown

Thousands have been confined to cramped dormitories in a move experts fear could worsen outbreak among workers.

Singapore workers
Men outside the now quarantined Punggol S-11 workers'' dormitory [Edgar Su/Reuters]

Singapore – On any typical day in Singapore, migrant workers, mostly from countries like Bangladesh and India, can be seen across the island, on building sites, working on the roads, and cleaning housing estates.

Now, as the country imposes its toughest intervention measures against the coronavirus yet, tens of thousands of them have been confined to their dormitories.

According to official figures, there are close to one million work permit holders in Singapore. 

Unlike the higher-tier employment passes given to white-collar workers, work permits are issued to low-wage migrants such as domestic workers or labourers. While female domestic workers are legally mandated to live in their employers’ homes, male migrant workers – largely from countries like Bangladesh, India and China – are mostly housed in dormitories scattered across the island, sharing rooms in close quarters.

Clusters of coronavirus cases have now been identified in several of these dormitories, which has pushed the government to employ more drastic measures.

Speaking to the press on April 5, Lawrence Wong, minister for National Development and co-chair of the taskforce, said the government was now deploying two separate strategies: one for the general population, and one specifically for migrant workers in dormitories.

Singapore has reported 1,481 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Medics attend to a migrant worker at a dormitory in Singapore, after nearly 20,000 of them were quarantined over coronavirus fear [MINDEF Singapore/Handout/via Reuters]

Three dormitories have been gazetted as “isolation areas”, meaning that about 20,000 men are now confined to their rooms for 14 days.

‘Circuit breaker’

As part of what the government is calling “circuit breaker” measures – a semi-lockdown period during which schools and non-essential workplaces have been closed until at least May 4 – all migrant workers across the island will not be allowed to leave their dormitories, which are often located on industrial estates. According to Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo, the ruling affects 200,000 workers in 43 dormitories.

“With the foreign worker dormitories, looking after the workers there, taking care of their welfare, looking after all their wellbeing but also taking all of these precautions, I think we would be able to ring-fence and contain the infected cases in the foreign worker dormitories,” Wong explained.

The measures have drawn an unprecedented amount of attention to the state of accommodation for migrant workers on the island.

Workers at S11 Dormitory @ Punggol – one of the gazetted dormitories, which has 88 confirmed cases of COVID-19 – told local media that they were living in crowded, unsanitary conditions, and described overflowing toilets and conditions in which safe distancing practices of staying at least one metre apart were simply not feasible.

Paul Tambyah, president of the Asia-Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection, told Al Jazeera that the policy of ring-fencing migrant workers in their dormitories was reminiscent of approaches taken by other countries to isolate cases but risked back-firing.

A man crosses an empty street in the central business district of Singapore on April 7, 2020, as the country ordered the closure of all businesses deemed non-essential as well as schools to combat the
Singapore has announced what it calls a ‘circuit breaker’ to deal with a spike in coronavirus cases; it will last into the start of next month forcing the closure of most businesses, as well as schools [Roslan Rahman/AFP]

“The way it is, is actually the Diamond Princess all over again,” he said, referring to the cruise ship that was quarantined at the port of Yokohama in Japan in early February after passengers tested positive for the coronavirus. In an attempt to keep the virus from spreading in Japan, passengers were kept on the ship and not allowed to disembark – a situation that led to hundreds on board getting infected.

“Ring-fencing will work, but it will work in the same way as Diamond Princess,” he added. “You’ll prevent the people [outside the dormitory] from getting it, but it will just spread through the population until you reach saturation point.”

A worker stuck in Westlite Toh Guan dormitory – another one of the three complexes now completely locked down – told Al Jazeera that the men had been instructed not to leave their rooms, and are only occasionally allowed out into the corridor for short periods of time.

The worker, who asked to remain anonymous, said he is living in a unit with nine others, with eight men in bunk beds in one larger room, and two men (also in bunk beds) in the smaller one next door. During meal times, only one person is allowed out to collect food for everyone else.

Conditions at his dormitory are acceptable, the worker said, but he is concerned about the stress of confinement.

“It is yet tolerable, but I can see the expression on people’s faces … it’s going to be tough,” he said over the phone. While the current orders confine them in their rooms for 14 days, the workers will not be allowed out of their dormitories until the “circuit breaker” measures come to an end next month.

Psychological strain

Luke Tan, a case manager at the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, is also worried about the emotional and psychological effect of such a quarantine.

Singapore workers dorm
Workers from Bangladesh and India look out of their balconies at Punggol S-11 workers’ dormitory, which has been quarantined after a cluster of coronavirus cases emerged there [Edgar Su/Reuters] 

“They are not entirely cut off from the outside world, but there is really not much difference from a prison,” he told Al Jazeera. This, he added, would be compounded by the fear of being exposed to the illness itself.

Migrant rights groups in Singapore have been raising the issue of substandard living conditions for years, and have warned against the risk of COVID-19 transmission among migrant workers.

“Currently, foreign workers are housed 12 to 20 men per room in double-decker beds. They are transported to work on the back of lorries sitting shoulder to shoulder. Neither of these conditions conforms with social distancing,” wrote Debbie Fordyce, president of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), in a letter to local broadsheet The Straits Times in March, where she warned that the risk of a cluster of cases was “undeniable”.

Having been proven right just two weeks later, the NGO is now calling for the reduction in the density of residents within dormitories noting on its website that any notion of safe distancing in the room itself was “laughable”, given the number of people there.

Among their suggestions is using Singapore Expo, the country’s largest exhibition and convention venue, army barracks, or even the currently empty multi-storey car parks at Changi Airport to allow men to be moved out of the crowded dormitories.

Alternative housing

The government has said it is preparing Singapore Expo to house COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms.

In response to criticism of conditions in dormitories, the Ministry for Manpower has said it is stepping up cleaning operations in the gazetted dormitories, and working “round-the-clock” to “prioritise the well-being of workers who remain healthy.” 

Even after the worst of the crisis is over, many low-wage migrant workers will probably still be struggling with the fallout.

Before the lockdown of the three dormitories, HOME had come across cases of workers laid off or put on no-pay leave by their employers as work dried up because of the outbreak, cutting off their ability to send money to dependents back home.

While the government has said that affected workers will continue to be paid throughout their quarantine, Tan says he remains concerned about how the government will ensure that these payments are made.

On Monday, three workers at HOME’s office were still hoping that unresolved salary claims could be dealt with.

Saifullah Moral and his two colleagues told Al Jazeera over the phone that they were collectively owed thousands of dollars by their employer, who had not paid their salaries for the past three months.

“The boss said that the company is going through economic problems, that’s why they can’t pay their workers,” Saifullah said with the help of a translator. 

When asked how confident he was of being able to sort out his outstanding salary issues at this time, Saifullah could only place his hopes on his employer.

“If my company wants to settle the case then I won’t face any problems,” he said. “If my company doesn’t want [to deal with it], then I don’t have any options.” 

Source: Al Jazeera