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The Big Read in short: Foreign worker dorms — what difference does a year make?

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at the situation with foreign worker dormitories one year after the first Covid-19 outbreak in these living quarters. This is a shortened version of the full feature,​ which can be found here.

The Big Read in short: Foreign worker dorms — what difference does a year make?

Foreign worker dormitories were a major source of concern for Singapore in the initial months as it sought to arrest the spread of the pandemic.

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at the situation with foreign worker dormitories one year after the first Covid-19 outbreak in these living quarters. This is a shortened version of the full feature,​ which can be found here.

  • Foreign worker dormitories were a major source of concern for Singapore in the initial months as it sought to arrest the spread of the pandemic 
  • The outbreak so far has infected tens of thousands of foreign workers living in dorms, with two succumbing to Covid-19 complications
  • A year after the first dorm cluster was identified, most of the infected foreign workers have recovered and new cases have slowed to a trickle. Many have since returned to work, but they are still living with strict movement restrictions
  • There’s a silver lining, as Singapore society took a long hard look at itself and plans are afoot to improve the living standards of dormitories
  • These new standards are likely to come at a cost to employers of foreign workers and ultimately, consumers and taxpayers 

 

SINGAPORE — On most days, Mr Al Amin, a foreign worker who hails from Bangladesh, leaves for work at 7am and returns to his dormitory room at around 8pm.

He spends his remaining waking hours doing chores such as laundry and cooking dinner. He then catches up with his family back home over the phone before calling it a night.

The 27-year-old’s routine is a far cry from his “independent” lifestyle in pre-pandemic days.

“Before Covid-19, we could go out to the shops or the field and spend our time there. We led a peaceful life. But now, we come back from work and just stay in our rooms,” said the technician who stays at ASPRI-Westlite Papan dormitory in Jurong East.

He may not have to wait long to go out, with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) saying that dormitory residents will be able to visit the community in “controlled numbers” once a month in the near future.

Amid the Covid-19 outbreak, foreign workers had, for several months, been mostly confined to their rooms under strict curbs to keep the situation under control. 

However, the situation has eased in the past few months, with workers returning to work, dormitories gradually opening communal facilities such as kitchens and minimarts, and workers allowed to visit recreation centres if they book through MOM’s SGWorkPass mobile application in advance.

A minimart at S11 @ Punggol. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

Despite the relaxation in rules, foreign workers told TODAY they continue to feel confined to their dormitories one year on, and look forward to returning to the community as they did pre-Covid.

While going back to their lives as they knew it is their immediate wish, the future for these workers in a post-pandemic Singapore remains a subject of national conversation. 

The Covid-19 outbreak in the dorms has raised questions about Singapore’s treatment of its migrant workers, and there is widespread acknowledgement that their living conditions have to be improved. 

The Government has since looked into the matter and introduced new specifications to give each resident more living space. The specifications are being piloted in several temporary dorms which have been built to reduce the density in existing dorms. The finalised specifications will be announced later this year.

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DEALING WITH STRESS AND BOREDOM

One year on, the restrictions placed on dormitories have had varying impacts on their residents.

Mr Veeraiyan Hariprasath, a 28-year-old maintenance worker staying at The Leo Dormitory at Kaki Bukit, said that during the circuit breaker, he felt greatly disturbed after hearing about deaths from Covid-19. Unable to go to work, he was also concerned about his financial security.

However, these fears abated in August after the dorm outbreak came under control and the Indian national was able to resume work.

At the other end of the spectrum is Mr Al Amin, who said that his stress level had only reduced “from 100 per cent to 90 per cent” now.

Initially anxious about whether he would survive the pandemic (he did not contract the virus), he is now stressed about having no avenue to relieve the pressures he faces at work.

“Sometimes the boss will order you around or the supervisor will shout. There’s so much pressure and you cannot refresh your mind at the workplace,” Mr Al Amin said.

Migrant worker groups have questioned the necessity for restrictions on foreign workers as the Covid-19 situation in Singapore has improved.

With almost half of dormitory residents having tested positive for Covid-19, these workers have already achieved herd immunity, said medical experts.

Associate Professor Alex Cook, from the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said that of the three factors keeping Covid-19 under control in dormitories — herd immunity, regular testing and restrictions on workers’ movement — herd immunity is the most important.

“I am unsure whether it’s really necessary to maintain these restrictions. As noted, there are other brakes on transmission, such as the herd immunity and frequent testing, and for the residents’ mental well-being, we should aim to release as many of these restrictions as possible,” said Assoc Prof Cook.

However, in an interview with media outlet BBC on March 14, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that half of foreign workers in dormitories are still vulnerable to infection. He said it will be too much of a risk for them to mix freely with the general population as Covid-19 is still circulating in Singapore.

COMING SOON: MORE SPACE, BETTER LIVING

After Covid-19 threw into sharp relief the plight of migrant workers here, the authorities announced last June that it would take steps to improve their living standards in dormitories, with new specifications to be announced later this year.

To this end, the Government has constructed Quick Build Dormitories, temporary structures to house foreign workers for the next two to three years, to testbed new and improved standards for future dormitories.

The Quick Build Dormitories are roomier, providing 6 sqm or more per resident, excluding shared facilities. The number of residents will also be capped at 10 to reduce inter-mixing among residents.

Current laws require dormitories to provide at least 4.5 sqm, including shared facilities, for each resident. There is no cap on the number of residents.

Each room in a Quick Build Dormitory is also fitted with an en-suite toilet to minimise transmission risks from shared facilities. There will also be at least one toilet for every five residents, instead of the current 15 residents.

A resident rests in his shared room at a Quick Build Dormitory managed by Westlite Accommodation at Tuas Avenue 2. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

The planned improvements on future dormitories will alter the way foreign workers live in a post-pandemic Singapore, said industry players.

Mr Johnathan Cheah, the managing director of S11 Dormitories, said that with fewer residents using the same number of facilities, workers will better enjoy the facilities and see an improvement in their living space and conditions.

Mr Kong Chee Min, chief executive officer of Centurion Corporation, which is the parent company of Westlite Accommodation said that having ensuite communal facilities will reduce the risk of contracting a virus through contact.

However, Mr Cheah of S11 cautioned that changes to dormitories will not guarantee that they are resistant to future pandemics.

“Frankly, I don’t think a change in hardware will simply future-proof dormitories to pandemics because future pandemics can exist in different forms, spread in a different way and affect humans differently,” he said.

WHO’S FOOTING THE BILL?

Better dormitories and living conditions for foreign workers will come at a cost, with consumers and taxpayers ultimately having to foot the bill, said industry players.

Mr Cheah estimates that dormitories based on new standards set by the Government would cost about S$50 to S$100 more per person monthly, up from the current market price range of S$280 to S$350.

The increase would cover the cost recovery for construction and extra maintenance required for safe-living measures and any profit.

Employers of foreign workers said that they will factor the price increase of dormitories into future contracts.

“So let’s say in another six months, the prices of dormitory rental go up, then we must be careful to price tenders accordingly due to the higher overheads at that time,” said Mr Nelson Tee, managing director of CHH Construction System.

The Government has also said that it is studying the possibility of developing upcoming purpose-built dormitories on a different operating model.

Under the current system, land is released for commercial operators to bid, build and operate the dormitories. 

One such new model floated by the authorities is the “build, own and lease model” where the Government builds the dormitory. A separate entity, such as a private company, can then lease and operate it. This model has been piloted with Quick Build Dormitories.

However, this may make it harder for dormitory operators to make a profit as it will have to work around the budget set by the Government.

Mr Cheah said that such a model will allow the Government to fix the rental rates of dormitory rooms when it requests for tenders. This may make it harder for dormitory operators to make a profit as it will have to work around the budget set by the Government.

Managing agents from other industries which handle residents, such as hotel operators, may also want to enter the market, increasing the competition for existing dormitory operators, said Mr Cheah.

Mr Cheah felt that the current model is still the best as the operator has a vested interest in the asset, having spent money to acquire the land and construct the dormitory.

“So naturally, they will want to ensure that the dormitory is operated properly. Laws such as FEDA will help make sure that dormitories comply with regulations,” said Mr Cheah, referring to the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act which regulates among other things, the provision of facilities and services, health and safety in dormitories housing 1,000 or more residents.

Regardless of which model is finally adopted, one thing is certain: There can be no return to the status quo ante — many people in Singapore had spoken out on behalf of the foreign workers, who have helped to keep the city-state humming all these years.

In the meantime, foreign workers are waiting for the day they can go out and about as they used to.

Said Mr Miraz, a 29-year-old worker who stays in Jurong Penjuru dormitory: “It’s my prayer that I don’t want to see anymore Covid-19 in Singapore. This is good for us, the workers, and Singaporeans. We just don’t want to see any more cases and hopefully, the Government will let us go out.”

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foreign workers dormitories Covid-19 coronavirus

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