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Covid-19: Some foreign workers feel ‘safer’ in dorms, others lament lack of enforcement, cramped spaces

SINGAPORE — Efforts by the authorities to implement safe distancing measures in foreign worker dormitories here, after Covid-19 cases surged, have drawn mixed feedback from some of those workers residing at the facilities.

Covid-19: Some foreign workers feel ‘safer’ in dorms, others lament lack of enforcement, cramped spaces

Workers gathering at a common area at Sungei Tengah Lodge on April 16, 2020.

SINGAPORE — Efforts by the authorities to implement safe distancing measures in foreign worker dormitories here, after Covid-19 cases surged, have drawn mixed feedback from some of those workers residing at the facilities.

Some dorm residents told TODAY on Friday (April 17) that things had improved, but others — providing photographs as proof — said conditions were unsatisfactory either because their dormitory management was not making sufficient effort, or it was impossible to enforce safe distancing in their cramped quarters.

For foreign workers who had been caught flouting the tighter safe distancing measures, the authorities have come down hard on them, including revocation of work passes and bans on working in Singapore.

However, migrant worker advocacy group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) has spoken out against the "harsh and disproportionate" punitive actions and called for better communication and improved living conditions to help the foreign workers comply with the measures. 

The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases has soared in Singapore in the past week, with foreign workers living in dormitories here accounting for the vast majority of the new cases. On Thursday alone, close to 90 per cent of the 728 new cases were foreign workers in dorms.

These workers, many from countries such as India and Bangladesh, work mainly in industries such as construction requiring low-paid workers. They are often housed in the dormitories as part of their employment deal.

The relatively low cost of their labour flows through to keeping costs down in the construction of condominiums, for example. The lower the overall cost of the workers — including their accommodation — the cheaper the condo units will be for Singaporean buyers and the higher the profits for developers are likely to be.

As of Friday, a total of 12 dorms here hit by Covid-19 had been gazetted as isolation areas, meaning that those living there must be quarantined in their rooms for two weeks.

INCREASED HEALTH CHECKS HELP WORKERS FEEL ‘SAFE’ IN DORMS

However, some workers told TODAY that conditions had improved since the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) declared their dormitories as isolation areas.

A 30-year-old worker from Westlite Toh Guan dormitory, which was gazetted as an isolation area on April 5, said that he is satisfied with how dormitory operators are managing the situation.

The number of people in his room has been reduced from 12 to eight, and residents have their temperature checked twice a day, said the worker, who asked to remain anonymous.

Residents of Tuas View Dormitory continued to gather in common areas, according to dormitory resident and construction site supervisor Mr Raj (not his real name) who said he took this photograph on April 15, 2020. He told TODAY that the dormitory’s management did not enforce safe distancing measures prior to it being declared an isolation area on Friday. Photo: Mr Raj

“I feel safe knowing that so many workers are checking on our health at all times. There is even a doctors’ station set up within the dormitory,” he said.

A spokesperson for Centurion Corporation, which operates five dormitories including Westlite Juniper, Westlite Mandai, Westlite Toh Guan, Westlite Woodlands and Aspri-Westlite Papan, said that more staff have been employed to maintain the safe distancing measures implemented and WhatsApp groups have been created to communicate with these workers.

The spokesperson added that security systems and closed-circuit television (CCTV) networks have also been put in place to monitor residents. The dorm operators will immediately be alerted of any breaches.

A 29-year-old foreign worker staying in the Sungei Tengah Lodge in Old Choa Chu Kang Road, gazetted as an isolation area since April 9, also feels “safe” in his dorm as their dorm operator has given them a number they can call if they feel an onset of symptoms.

Rooms are also more spacious as many have fallen sick and been taken to hospitals and others have returned to Bangladesh and India. There are currently as few as five left per room, he said.

“I feel safe because there is also a medical team downstairs that can help me anytime if something goes wrong,” he said.

Both workers declined to be named.

Foreign workers living in Cochrane Lodge 1 continue to mingle in common areas such as corridors, according to Mr Rana (not his real name), a 29-year-old Bangladeshi construction worker, who said he took this photograph on April 17, 2020. He said that there had been a lack of enforcement to ensure safe distancing in his dorm, which was declared an isolation area last Saturday. Photo: Mr Rana

NO SPACE, NO ENFORCEMENT IN DORMS

Nevertheless, other foreign workers that TODAY spoke to said they were still unhappy with conditions in their dorms. Some said the lack of physical space hindered safe distancing measures while others were frustrated over a lack of enforcement by their dorm operators.

On Friday morning, Zakir Hossain Khokan, 41, a quality assurance and quality coordinator in construction who is staying at Cochrane Lodge 2, a foreign worker dormitory in Admiralty, found out that he had contracted Covid-19.

Mr Zakir, a Bangladeshi national, said that living conditions in the dormitory which was gazetted as an isolation area on Sunday have not improved. He told TODAY he was upset by the perception among some that the rising number of cases in dormitories here was due to workers’ hygiene or lack of awareness.

“The issue is the living conditions simply have not improved. Seven to nine rooms still use one toilet area. If there are an average 12 people in one room, that’s more than 100 people using the same basins, showers and toilet bowls,” he said, adding that everyone is touching the same dirty surfaces and nobody knows who is sick.

Mr Zakir, who worked closely with non-profit groups One Bag One Book and Migrant Writers of Singapore to distribute masks and other hygiene products in his dorm, said that with up to 20 people in each room, it will be impossible to contain the spread as it was difficult to even maintain a 1m distance between people in rooms.

Mr Rana (not his real name), a resident of Cochrane Lodge 1 which was declared an isolated area last Saturday, said that no one was maintaining a safe distance in the dormitory, despite MOM’s advisories that residents should remain in their rooms at all times.

“Everybody is still mixing around with people from other rooms. People are chilling outside their rooms and standing around. Management told us not to leave the room, but it is not doing much to enforce,” said the 29-year-old who works in the construction industry.

He added that with only two ceiling fans for a room of 12, the poor ventilation in rooms was also causing people to fall ill.

Mr Rana (not his real name), a 29-year-old Bangladeshi foreign worker residing in Cochrane Lodge 1, said he took this photograph on April 17, 2020, showing that there was a lack of space in rooms to maintain a safe distance. Photo: Mr Rana

Meanwhile, another foreign worker, who wished to be known only as Mr Raj, blamed the management for not enforcing safe distancing measures in his dorm, Tuas View Dormitory, before the situation got out of hand.

His dormitory, which had a total of 73 cases as of Thursday, was gazetted as an isolation area with effect on Friday.

Mr Raj, who declined to provide his real name, said that as recently as Wednesday, workers had continued to gather in common areas such as the lawn. No checks were conducted by the dormitory staff.

Even in the kitchens, up to 50 residents would come to collect food cooked by other residents of the dormitory. No one maintained a safe distance during the collection and the management did not step in, said the 35-year-old construction site supervisor.

“The management did not take the situation seriously even though the Covid-19 numbers were obviously rising in dormitories here,” said Mr Raj.

While the situation has seen a turnaround on Friday, with barricades put up between the different blocks, and workers were told to stay in their rooms at all times, Mr Raj remains anxious and worried about the Covid-19 situation in his dorm.

Foreign workers living in Cochrane Lodge 1 continue to mingle in common areas such as corridors, according to Mr Rana (not his real name), a 29-year-old Bangladeshi construction worker, who said he took this photograph on April 17, 20202. The dorm was declared an isolation area on Saturday (April 11).

VARIED STANDARDS OF ENFORCEMENT AMONG OPERATORS HERE

Dorm operators that TODAY approached such as Tuas View Dormitory, Vobis Enterprise which manages Cochrane Lodge 1 and 2 and Sungei Tengah Lodge had not replied to queries by Friday evening.

Migrant worker groups told TODAY said that the differing standards among dorms here were due to the varied degrees of enforcement among operators as well as the time required to make changes.

Ms Kokila Annamalai, who is a volunteer with Home, said that different dormitories have access to different amounts of resources.

For instance, those workers living in isolated dormitories have access to medical facilities, masks and sanitisers while those workers who are living in temporary quarters, for example, get “very little to no resources” as their employers may have stopped providing for them.

The degree of enforcement among dorm operators and employers here also varies depending on the attitudes and practices of people on the ground, she said.

Reverend Samuel Gift Stephen, 43, the chairman of the Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach (AGWO), a coalition of 130 partners who advocate on behalf of migrant workers, said that it was not that operators were not taking effort to implement safe distancing, but that they needed time.

While some dormitories have the avenues to shift the workers and create more space in each room, others are at capacity, he said.

“They’re waiting for MOM to shift these workers to temporary accommodation because their facilities are not equipped. Right now what a lot of dormitories are doing is looking for volunteers to help mobilise the workers to get on a bus to go to other housing. The workers have to pack and ready themselves. It’s a process,” he said.

When asked how they were ensuring that dormitories here were enforcing safe distancing measures among its residents, MOM did not answer the query directly, referring TODAY to advisories that it has issued to dormitory operators here instead.

In an advisory issued to dormitory operators on April 6, MOM said that there should be no mixing of residents between different floors and blocks. Shower times should also be staggered for residents, said the advisory.

Another advisory issued on April 10 called for residents of factory-converted dorms and other temporary facilities to maintain safe distancing in their dormitories, instead of lingering in common areas.

Factory-converted dorms are industrial or warehouse developments that have been partially converted into dormitories.

Operators are also expected to have a fully-staffed team, including an on-site duty manager to manage residents during the circuit breaker period.

PUNISHMENT 'HARSH, DISPROPORTIONATE': HOME 

On Monday, MOM said it had revoked the work passes of 24 errant individuals who have also been barred from working in Singapore. The ministry said that its inspectors found the workers eating, drinking and gathering in groups near Tuas View Square earlier in the day. This was despite past enforcement activities in the area, MOM said. 

However, Home has urged MOM to “weigh the seriousness of the violations against the workers’ plight amidst the Covid-19 pandemic”.

In a media statement issued on Wednesday, Home pointed out that Singapore residents who have flouted the enhanced safe distancing measures have “only been issued $300 fines or written advisories”. 

“It is unclear to us why work pass holders are punished so much more severely. If the intention is to ‘send a clear signal of the seriousness of the offence’, as MOM has said in its statement, surely these standards should be applied evenly across everyone regardless of nationality and residential status,” Home said.

It noted that many of the foreign workers’ home countries are also not allowing citizens to return at this point in time, and these workers will find themselves stranded.

“Even when they manage to fly home, interstate and local transportation might not have resumed in countries like India where the lock down is being extended, and as most workers hail from rural parts of the country, they might have to make the staggering journey home on foot,” Home added. 

TASK FORCE TO COORDINATE EFFORTS WITH NGOs

On Friday, the MOM said that the inter-agency task force, which has been deployed to provide support to foreign workers and dormitory operators, has started coordinating efforts with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that have voluntarily stepped forward to reach out to foreign workers here, including those in factory-converted dormitories.

The task force is working with AGWO, It’s Raining Raincoats, Geylang Adventures and Crisis Relief Alliance, among others.

In its press release on Friday, MOM said that it is critical for efforts to help workers to be coordinated in an “orderly way”.

“Having dedicated vast amounts of public resources across the whole of government, we must not risk uncoordinated actions compromising the integrity of ground operations and weakening their effectiveness,” said MOM.

MOM said that NGOs have collectively helped to provide about 7,000 meals per day to the workers in factory-converted dormitories, and deliver donations from the public to workers in need.

The task force is also working with NGO HealthServe to provide free, virtual counselling sessions for workers in dormitories whose emotional well-being may be affected.

List of gazetted isolated dormitories:

  • S11 Dormitory @ Punggol, Westlite Toh Guan and Toh Guan dormitory (gazetted April 5)

  • Sungei Tengah Lodge (gazetted April 8)

  • Tampines Dormitory (gazetted April 9)

  • Cochrane Lodge I, Acacia Lodge (gazetted April 11)

  • Cochrane Lodge 2 (gazetted April 12)

  • Mandai Lodge 1 (gazetted April 15)

  • Shaw Lodge Dormitory, North Coast Lodge and Tuas View Dormitory (gazetted April 16)

Related topics

dormitories safe distancing Covid-19 coronavirus

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