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​What can we do to stop housing migrant workers in unliveable quarters?

Poor housing conditions for foreign workers is a long-standing issue, going back decades. What more needs to be done to tackle this problem?

Unsanitary toilet facilities at one of the houses that construction firm Genocean Enterprises illegally converted into a dormitory.

Unsanitary toilet facilities at one of the houses that construction firm Genocean Enterprises illegally converted into a dormitory.

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The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said on July 4 that it has slapped 10 charges on dormitory operator Labourtel Management Corporation after checks found cockroaches in its “filthy and unacceptable” dormitories, which also had missing or damaged light fixtures, faulty shower taps and corroded railings.

This came after the State Courts meted out a fine of S$257,000 in April to construction company Genocean Enterprises and its directors after the authorities discovered that 66 foreign workers were being housed in an area meant for a maximum of eight unrelated people.

Photos taken at the premises — two adjoining private residential units in Geylang illegally converted into a dormitory — showed wet laundry being hung in sleeping areas and unsanitary toilet facilities.

Poor housing conditions for foreign workers is a long-standing issue, going back decades. What more needs to be done to tackle this problem?

Cramped living conditions and/or a lack of maintenance in workers’ dormitories are often a result of employers and dorm operators trying to cut costs or maximise revenues. 

Purpose-built dormitories, for example, are profit-driven and this means the more workers housed, the higher the margins. This also applies to private residential premises and factory-converted dormitories. 

Many cases of overcrowding and poor living conditions in dormitories were discovered by the Ministry of Manpower during its inspections based on its own intel, tip-offs and referrals.

With so many spaces — both registered and unregistered — housing foreign workers in Singapore, whistle-blowers play a highly important role in surfacing these issues to the authorities. 

However, while members of the public may play their part in reporting to the authorities, they have limited scope and insight into the situations and living conditions of the foreign workers. 

Foreign workers themselves are better placed to assess the situation and tip off the authorities. The question is: Why is it more often than not, they are not the ones reporting inadequate housing situations that go against the law?

Firstly, MOM advises that in the event that foreign workers have issues with their housing conditions, they should first raise the matter with their employers. 

But how many workers will do that considering that these employers can terminate their contract and cancel their work permits at any time? 

Many of the workers are either still paying off their agency fees or financially supporting their families back home. 

An alternative is to tip off MOM anonymously. But while foreign workers are assured that all information will be kept strictly confidential, they are still fearful of possible repercussions of being repatriated back to their home country, for example. 

Over the years, laws spelling out the housing standards for foreign workers have been tightened. 

Under the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act passed in 2015, operators of large worker dormitories are required to provide facilities for recreational and social activities, for example.

While MOM saw a dip in the number of breaches of foreign worker housing rules between 2015 and 2017 from 1,451 to 1,176, more can still be done. 

In 2017, the MOM also imposed new requirements for factory-converted dormitories. These included the provision of personal lockers and Wi-Fi on the premises.

In the same year, MOM also launched a mobile phone app called DormWatch to make it easier for foreign workers to provide feedback on their living conditions to MOM and their dormitory operators. 

While the DormWatch app opens up another easily accessible feedback channel, it appears that many foreign workers are still not aware of this alternative based on what some of us have heard on the ground.

This raises the question: What is being done to ensure that foreign workers are educated on such forms of feedback channels? 

Also, to log into the app, foreign workers are required to identify themselves using their Foreign Identification Number. This is likely to raise concerns that their identity will be revealed if they make a report.

Yet little seems to have been done to assuage such concerns that they may be penalised by their employers for raising the alarm on housing conditions.  

To promote usage of the app, representatives from MOM or relevant partners could visit migrant worker dormitories in person to address these concerns as well as listen to feedback on the ground.  

Technology remains the plausible answer to improving the housing conditions of foreign workers. 

A report published by Open Society Foundations, UNSW Law and University of Technology Sydney, explored the use of digital platforms that facilitate and incorporate migrant worker engagement.

These platforms — including the use of mobile messaging apps, social media and tailored platforms — can “connect and organise workers and enable them to share their experiences and strategies, and to collectively advocate for better conditions”. 

Workers can even rate and review recruiters, employers and other intermediaries based on how they treat their workers.

According to MOM, over 4,600 inspections were conducted across all housing types from 2015 to 2017.

Inspections could be conducted more frequently and regularly to ensure enforcement standards and requirements are upheld and adhered to consistently.

The number of those authorised to conduct inspections could also be expanded to include more advocacy groups to promote greater transparency and accountability among dormitory operators.

Public awareness on the issues migrant workers face during their time in Singapore also remains relatively low. 

This is where social enterprises such as Migrant X Me is helping to close the gap. Since 2018, Migrant X Me has been conducting experiential learning journeys to educate the public, particularly youths between 13 and 35 years old, on the migrant worker community. 

These are the first steps that can be taken towards growing a more caring community that sees migrant workers as an important part of Singapore’s social fabric and promotes their wellbeing.



Amanda Soo is a volunteer at Migrant x Me, a social enterprise founded by Isabel Phua to provide public education and raise awareness on the issues that the migrant worker community in Singapore faces.


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this commentary misspelt the name of the dormitory operator that was slapped with 10 charges. It should be Labourtel Management Corporation and not Labourtek Management Corporation. We apologise for the error.

Related topics

Migrant Workers dormitory Foreign Employee Dormitories Act

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