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The Big Read in short: The ‘sad and lonely’ predicament of migrant workers in dorms

Each week, TODAY's long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at the plight of migrant workers residing in dormitories, who have largely been confined to their rooms or worksites for over a year amid the pandemic. This is a shortened version of the full feature.

Each week, TODAY's long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at the plight of migrant workers residing in dormitories, who have largely been confined to their rooms or worksites for over a year amid the pandemic. This is a shortened version of the full feature,​ which can be found here.

  • In the last 15 months, Singaporeans have been adapting to community measures that shift in tandem with the pandemic situation
  • But throughout this protracted period, migrant workers residing in dormitories have been largely confined to their rooms and worksites 
  • A pilot to have them return to the community once a month has been put on hold in order to protect their health and safety, MOM says 
  • However, the prolonged confinement has taken a toll on the workers’ mental health
  • They also face other long-standing issues related to salaries, loss of income, and the financial uncertainty faced by their families

 

SINGAPORE — Looking out from the window of his dormitory in Admiralty, migrant worker Hasan cannot help but feel jealous when he sees residents in the area meeting friends or going out for a breath of fresh air in the park.

Unlike them, the 28-year-old Bangladeshi has not been able to do the same for the past 15 months and counting, or since April last year when the authorities imposed strict movement curbs on foreign workers living in the dormitories to stop the rapid spread of Covid-19 among them. And the situation shows no sign of changing. 

During this period, Mr Hasan has also not seen his friends as they all live in different dormitories. 

The construction worker shared with TODAY how he was unable to visit a friend who came down with a three-day fever recently after receiving his Covid-19 vaccination. 

“I can only video call and see his face but I cannot do anything from here (in the dormitory)... This is the most frustrating thing we face until now,” said Mr Hasan, who is a workplace health and safety supervisor and did not want to give his full name.

The sense of frustration was echoed by Mr Uddin Almas, a Bangladeshi worker living at Avery Lodge at 2D Jalan Papan.

The 38-year-old electrical supervisor said he longs for the day when he could once again spend his day off on Sundays to play music with his band, the Migrant Band. 

“We just sing and have fun and it helps us to forget all our problems and stresses,” said Mr Almas, as he reminisced about the good old days with the band. 

It gets “sad and lonely” during this period of prolonged isolation, he added, and the inability for him to destress with the band has also made him dwell on how much he misses his family back home. 

Mr Hasan (second from right) with his friends from the Covid-19 Migrant Support Coalition, where he is a community leader, in a photo taken on April 18, 2021. Photo courtesy of Mr Hasan.

With Singapore striving to transit to a “new normal”, and the national vaccination exercise being ramped up in recent weeks, many people here are looking forward to further easing of pandemic-related social and economic restrictions in the coming months — even as the emergence of the KTV cluster this week presented a major setback for reopening efforts, sending a sobering reminder that the Covid-19 virus is still very much alive and kicking.

While the vast majority of the Singapore population has been experiencing many twists and turns over the past 15 months, as community restrictions get tightened or loosened in tandem with the pandemic situation, not much has changed for the 275,000-odd migrant workers living in dormitories.  

Since the movement curbs were introduced last year, the workers have been largely confined to their rooms and only allowed to leave for work or, more recently, to designated recreation centres on some days. 

The restrictions — which continue even though Covid-19 has not been spreading its tentacles wildly across the dormitories like before — have enhanced feelings of isolation, anguish and despair among the workers, with few outlets available for them to relieve their stress, according to activists who support migrant workers here. 

Last December, the Government announced that a pilot scheme would be introduced in the first quarter of this year to allow migrant workers in some dormitories to return to the community once a month. 

However, it has been put on hold indefinitely. In response to TODAY’s queries, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said on Thursday (July 15) that this was “to protect the health of our migrant workers, especially as more cases of Covid-19 were picked up”.

“MOM is monitoring the situation closely and will further ease the measures progressively and safely,” it said.

‘EVERY DAY IS THE SAME’

With the migrant workers largely confined to their dormitories, those interviewed by TODAY said they have been going through the same mundane routine of heading straight to their work sites each morning and returning to their living quarters in the evening. 

While they typically had little time or energy for leisure after work before the pandemic struck, the big difference now is that they are unable to go out freely during their days off or weekends.

For Mr Al Amin, a dormitory worker who lives at Aspri-Westlite Papan, his typical work day starts early at 6.30am. Mr Al Amin, like those interviewed, shares a room with 10 to 18 people in the dorms. 

The 27-year-old technician, who works at Shell’s petrochemical refinery in Pulau Bukom, would take the company bus and arrive at his workplace at 7.15am, where he changes into his work attire before reporting for work at 9am. 

After his work ends at 6.45pm, Mr Al Amin travels back to his dormitory at Jalan Papan by bus, arriving at around 8pm. He then eats, washes his clothes and talks to his family via video call. 

The other migrant workers typically recounted the same schedules. Because of the current manpower crunch, as the economic downturn forces many companies to shed workers, some said they have had to work overtime more frequently and therefore return to the dormitories later. Others said they have chosen to make use of the lull period to upgrade their skills by taking part-time online courses.

Sundays used to be the highlight of their week as it’s usually their day off and they could go to various places to catch up with friends or do some shopping. But that is no longer possible. 

“I say (it’s like) jail because I do not have the freedom to go out,” said Mr Al Amin, who hails from Bangladesh. 

“I am very appreciative of what Singapore has done for me but I am only human to feel trapped… I long for the freedom that other people have where they can go out and dine in”. 

Echoing his comments, Mr Nilsagar, 32, a site supervisor who goes by one name, said of his plight: “Work and go dorm, work and go dorm… this is not life”.

With the migrant workers largely confined to their dormitories, those interviewed by TODAY said they have been going through the same mundane routine of heading straight to their work sites each morning and returning to their living quarters in the evening. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY Since August last year, the workers have been allowed to visit a recreation centre — which houses facilities such as supermarkets and food centres — thrice a week for four hours each visit, which they must book through MOM’s SGWorkPass mobile application in advance. There are eight recreation centres islandwide, with the workers assigned to a fixed centre.

These visits were suspended temporarily when Singapore saw a new wave of infections and entered a state of “heightened alert” in May, said MOM. But they have since resumed when Covid-19 measures were eased on June 14, though visits to the recreation centres have been cut down to once a week for now.

While the workers appreciate having the ability to run errands at the recreation centres, some of them said the visits are not a perfect substitute for being able to go out and eat or shop at their favourite outlets in Little India. 

Also, after factoring the time taken to travel and to undergo antigen rapid testing to enter the centres, they usually are left with about one-and-a-half hours to get their errands done. This rush can itself be a source of stress, they said.

WHAT MOM, DORM OPERATORS SAY

Explaining why the pilot to have migrant workers return to the community had been put on hold, then-Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng said in May that the authorities’ responsibility is to “first and foremost… protect the lives and health of all of us, migrant workers, the industry and livelihoods”. 

"The last thing we want is for everyone to relax and go out into the community, and then it sparks another wave. I think then we'll be much worse off. So with an abundance of caution, we decided to delay that and we want to see how this (situation) continues,” said Dr Tan, who made these comments right after the cluster at Westlite Woodlands was discovered. 

In its response to TODAY’s queries, MOM said it has always been “mindful and conscious of the need to better support the mental well-being of our migrant workers”.

As such, the ministry has been working with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as the Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC) and HealthServe, to ensure that the workers have access to mental health support and assistance, such as counselling services in the workers’ native languages and support helplines. 

MOM said among the common issues raised by the workers include family problems and concerns about the well-being of their loved ones back home. 

The ministry added that MWC and HealthServe follow up closely with the workers on the issues raised, and escalate them to MOM for further action when necessary.

To aid these efforts, the ministry has also increased its frontline support by partnering with the Institute of Mental Health to train 50 medical professionals to identify and offer care to migrant workers who may require mental health interventions.

MOM has also trained personnel under its Forward Assurance and Support Teams to identify and administer psychological first aid to distressed workers.

Recently, MOM launched a Friends of Assurance, Care and Engagement (Face) network and peer support network, where volunteer migrant workers can flag concerns raised by their peers to the relevant authorities.

“The peer support network helps to strengthen community support amongst our migrant workers, with volunteers trained in psychological first aid to provide a first layer of support to their peers who may require assistance.”

MOM added that its officers, counsellors who visit dormitories on a daily basis, as well as the NGOs, have also worked hard to reach out to migrant workers to listen to them and support their needs.

It cited recent polls — conducted by the Government’s feedback unit Reach between April and June — which found that about nine in 10 of more than 1,900 migrant workers residing in dormitories indicated consistently over the last three months that they had been coping well.

MOM said among the common issues raised by the workers include family problems and concerns about the well-being of their loved ones back home. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

Several dorm operators whom TODAY approached declined to respond to queries or could not provide responses by publication time. 

One dorm operator, who cannot be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media, said that while recreation centres and leisure activities in the dormitories had to pause due to a surge in Covid-19 cases, these facilities are gradually re-opening and activities are resuming one at a time. 

However, these facilities, such as gyms and canteens, are still operating in a controlled manner, where there is a cap on the number of people who can access each area and workers would have to pre-book slots to use certain facilities.

Some dormitory operators themselves have also created online channels through mobile apps, or WhatsApp groups to run activities such as virtual bingo games and dance contests, he said. 

 

THE MENTAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL TOLL

Despite such attempts to support migrant workers’ mental well-being, the psychological toll on them due to prolonged isolation from the larger community remains a concern, said NGOs and rights groups which support migrant workers here. Some of these organisations told TODAY they have been receiving more calls relating to mental health since the pandemic started.  

A spate of suicides and attempted suicides at the foreign worker dormitories also made headlines last year, with videos circulating on social media appearing to portray various incidents of foreign workers standing precariously on rooftops or ledges of dormitory buildings.

On these incidents, MOM told CNA in August last year that it would monitor the situation closely and work with NGOs to enhance its mental health support programmes for the workers, though it did not observe a spike in the number of migrant worker suicides compared to previous years. 

Mr Michael Cheah, executive director of HealthServe, said it receives a monthly average of about 200 calls for support on its existing mental health hotline, with spikes observed during festive seasons or when news breaks of a crisis back in the workers’ home countries. 

Reverend Samuel Gift Stephen, chairman of the Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach (AGWO), said a large part of the workers’ stress stems from the lingering uncertainty over the coronavirus situation, and whether Singapore will return to another partial lockdown similar to last year — a situation which would affect their livelihoods. 

Migrant workers receiving cookies baked by children volunteers for a National Day campaign run by AGWO. Photo courtesy of Rev Samuel Gift Stephen

FINANCIAL UNCERTAINTY STILL A BIG CONCERN

Some NGOs, such as the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), pointed out that aside from the prolonged confinement, other long-standing issues related to salaries, loss of income, and the financial uncertainty faced by their families continue to serve as the biggest stress on the migrant workers’ mental health.

Home said that more recently, some employers are “exploiting the workers’ fears of being repatriated with little prospects of returning to work in Singapore, given the current border measures, to pressure them to continue working under unsafe or unfair conditions and unreasonably low salaries”.

Despite the current labour crunch, Home said some employers would still rather repatriate their workers than allow them to seek a transfer to another company.

The advocacy group added that the pandemic has made matters worse as workers who would normally lodge a complaint against their employers now feel they have no choice but to tolerate their situation as they do not want to lose their jobs. 

Movement curbs have also prevented workers from getting help, especially those who work in factory-converted dorms, construction temporary quarters, or their employers’ premises, where there may not be an Ace team member from MOM stationed at all times, Home said. 

Mr Bernard Menon, executive director of Migrant Workers’ Centre, said for the majority of migrant workers, most of their anxieties are “very much related to the uncertainty surrounding if they are able to resume work, or (if) they still have a job in Singapore”.

“Thankfully, prior to (the ‘heightened alert’ phase), the majority of the migrant workers were able to go back to work and this had a positive impact on their psychological well-being. Being able to return to work has provided our migrant workers with some respite from the idleness and frustration of having to stay indoors or in their dormitories,” he added.

Ms Dipa Swaminathan, founder of migrant worker advocacy group ItsRainingRaincoats, noted that in her experience, salary issues remain the biggest concern for the workers. 

“If quarantines and lockdowns get to a point where their wages are docked or delayed or unpaid, that is when it would have the highest potential to become a mental health problem,” she said.

 

Related topics

Migrant Workers dormitories Covid-19 coronavirus mental health MOM ngo

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