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MOM’s ACE Group to become permanent division to ensure govt presence in migrant worker dorms

SINGAPORE — Initially formed to support migrant workers following the outbreaks of Covid-19 in workers’ dormitories last year, the Ministry of Manpower’s Assurance, Care and Engagement (ACE) group will now become a permanent division so as to ensure a firm government presence in these dormitories.

The Ministry of Manpower’s Assurance, Care and Engagement (ACE) group will now become a permanent division so as to ensure a firm government presence in migrant worker dormitories such as this one photographed here on Sept 9, 2021.

The Ministry of Manpower’s Assurance, Care and Engagement (ACE) group will now become a permanent division so as to ensure a firm government presence in migrant worker dormitories such as this one photographed here on Sept 9, 2021.

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  • The Ministry of Manpower’s Assurance, Care and Engagement (ACE) group will become a department to be staffed permanently
  • ACE was formed to safeguard the well-being of migrant workers following the Covid-19 outbreaks in their dormitories last year
  • The move represents a significant change in thinking on migrant worker management
  • Its chief Tung Yui Fai said ACE wants to build an ecosystem comprising Government, dorm operators, employers, NGOs and migrant workers

 

SINGAPORE — Initially formed to support migrant workers following the outbreaks of Covid-19 in workers’ dormitories last year, the Ministry of Manpower’s Assurance, Care and Engagement (ACE) group will now become a permanent division so as to ensure a firm government presence in these dormitories.

Speaking to the local media on Wednesday (Sept 22), the division’s chief Tung Yui Fai confirmed that ACE, which is currently staffed by more than 1,000 people, is here to stay.

“It is going to be a permanent setup. As it is now, ACE is a very big entity, and at the peak of the circuit breaker, the number of people running operations was more than 2,000,” said Mr Tung, adding that this is larger than many ministries.

Hence, there will be a need to streamline and resize its operations once the pandemic phase is over, he said, adding that the permanent headcount for ACE has not yet been decided yet.

The move to institute ACE as a persistent fixture in the migrant worker landscape represents a significant shift in the Government’s thinking on managing the sizable migrant worker population here.

Some commentators have pointed out that prior to the pandemic, the state had primarily played a regulator’s role to ensure that employers of migrant workers as well as dormitory operators abide by strict regulations that safeguard the well-being of workers.

The pandemic, however, has revealed shortcomings in this strategy.

Several have also called for the Government to play a more direct role in the operations of dormitories, which dorm operators said were not built to handle a pandemic like Covid-19.

Asked about this, Mr Tung said ACE does not seek to replace the responsibilities of dorm operators and employers.

“What we can do is to build on the trust and understanding, and (not go back to) that arm's length treatment, but to be closer to the stakeholders to better explain why things are done a certain way and help them build up their capabilities so that they can be more compliant as well,” he explained.

The former Brigadier-General in the Singapore Armed Forces gave a metaphor of how ACE could be like neighbourhood police posts, which deploy community police officers to walk their beats, understand the neighbourhood, and intervene early when necessary.

Mr Tung compared this to the past, when there were only large police stations in Singapore for people to report cases. Eventually, the police understood that in order to prevent crime, officers had to be “forward deployed”.

“They know who the coffee shop owners are, where the kids gather to play football, or where people are doing their funny business," he said.

"When they knew the terrain well, it meant that they could also intervene early. This is also the model we want, to have enough ground officers able to detect issues, build relationships, and work with the community to pre-empt their needs.”

When asked why public resources should be used to prop up any failings of private dorm operators or employers, Mr Tung said the fundamental responsibility of caring for migrant workers does not lie with any one party, but the collective.

Hence, there needs to be a collective stake in the management of migrant workers, without whom construction, critical infrastructure and public transport may grind to a halt, he stressed.

“(The circuit breaker) is a reminder that migrant workers are part and parcel of our workforce. It is what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on national television during the circuit breaker, when he spoke not only to Singaporeans but to migrant workers and their families that we will take care of you, just like you are one of us,” he said.

ECOSYSTEM OF SUPPORT

To this end, ACE has been building an ecosystem of stakeholders, including dorm operators, employers as well as non-governmental organisations that share the aim of ensuring that migrant workers in Singapore are treated well.

Mr Tung added that ACE is working to create an accessible and affordable healthcare system for migrant workers. It has established regional medical centres, and is developing a long term medical plan to divide Singapore’s migrant worker populations into sectors.

Dormitories will also be required to follow updated dormitory standards, and a support scheme to help existing dorms transit to these new standards will also be announced later.

ACE has also established a grassroots network of migrant worker volunteers in every dormitory with 100 or more residents, known as the Friends of Ace (Face) Network. As of Sept 13, there were more than 1,200 such Face volunteers.

Speaking to TODAY, Face volunteer and construction worker Aung Ko Latt, 24, shared his experience communicating important policies, such as how to self-administer antigen rapid tests, to his fellow dormitory residents.

Mr Aung, who is from Myanmar, speaks fluent English, Tamil, Hindi, Thai and Burmese.

“You can see that some workers who just came (to Singapore) and don’t speak English well struggle to understand what to do. (It is only when) I explain it to them in their language, then they learn how to do tests very quickly,” he said.

Face volunteers are trained to recognise basic mental health issues among them, and those interested will also receive further psychological first aid skills training and become appointed as peer support leaders.

Mr Aung, who came to Singapore in March last year, said that most people have come to appreciate the Government’s efforts to keep them safe, even though many hope that they can enjoy more personal freedoms soon.

In the interview on Wednesday, Mr Tung said the main challenge he faced in his past year was in communicating to people the rationale behind restrictive measures and explaining to stakeholders why the authorities had to keep workers quarantined in dormitories for such a long time.

The past year has also shown him how resilient migrant workers are, he said. While a few desire more relaxation of rules, everyone he has interacted with ultimately understood what is required of them.

“All the workers I have spoken to, the truth is that they have never whined about anything, they always had a smile for you, and they have never complained why are we holding them in for so long,” said Mr Tung.

“Yes, it is inconvenient and the rules are restrictive, but they are made with their interests in mind. So that is why the onus is on us to not impose more than what is needed, and at the appropriate time, quickly align (the measures) to those of the community.”

Related topics

MOM migrant worker dormitories Covid-19 coronavirus

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