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‘We need to de-stress’: Migrant workers welcome eased dormitory curbs but hope community visits can be expanded

SINGAPORE — For some 18 months, migrant workers have been confined to dormitories when not working and they are now looking forward to restrictions being relaxed. However, they worry that these steps could be derailed if the Covid-19 pandemic worsens and they are hoping that a relatively small pilot programme for workers to make community visits can be expanded.

‘We need to de-stress’: Migrant workers welcome eased dormitory curbs but hope community visits can be expanded

Westlite Mandai Dormitory photographed on Sept 9, 2021.

  • The Ministry of Manpower announced plans to slowly ease movement restrictions for workers in dormitories
  • Among them is a pilot to let 500 vaccinated workers make community visits weekly
  • Workers were concerned that the pilot could be derailed by a new coronavirus variant
  • One worker said that the living conditions of the dormitories must also be improved at the same time
  • NGOs said that the pilot needs to be quickly expanded because only a small minority stand to benefit for now

 

SINGAPORE — For some 18 months, migrant workers have been confined to dormitories when not working and they are now looking forward to restrictions being relaxed. However, they worry that these steps could be derailed if the Covid-19 pandemic worsens and they are hoping that a relatively small pilot programme for workers to make community visits can be expanded. 

On Thursday (Sept 9), the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said that starting next Monday, up to 500 vaccinated migrant workers a week would be allowed into the community under a pilot programme. The first place open to them for visits under the pilot will be Little India.

All workers will also be able to make more frequent visits to recreation centres and will be able to go on organised excursions.

In interviews with TODAY, the workers as well as several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that focus on migrant worker welfare noted that under the pilot, only about 2,000 workers can be let out into the community each month.

That represents less than 1 per cent of the more than 275,000 migrant workers here who have not been out in the community for more than 18 months.

MOM said that the pilot would be evaluated after a month to see how it could be safely expanded.

Migrant worker Zakir Hossain Khokan, who is a quality assurance and quality coordinator in the construction sector and is staying at North Coast Lodge, said that workers like himself have been waiting for these relaxed measures for “quite a long time”.

“The last (18 months) were really a very terrible experience… especially for our mental health” the 42-year-old said of being confined in the dormitory.

He had observed that several of his roommates experienced bouts of emotional instability over the period of confinement, and this led to them not being able to concentrate at work.

He hopes that “day by day, the situation will improve, and more migrant workers will be let out in the community”.

Another worker Mynul Islam, 29, said that the pilot comes as good news given the restrictions migrant workers have faced since the severe dormitory outbreaks in April last year.

However, the construction site supervisor, who stays at ​​Sunview Road Dormitory, hopes that workers under the pilot will be allowed to go about their activities without too much supervision.

“(Before Covid-19), we were allowed to go everywhere… now maybe we can’t go to all the places,” Mr Mynul said. “But at least something is better than nothing.”

Mr Mynul, who is from Bangladesh, said that the first thing he will do should he be selected for the pilot would be to pray at a mosque, something he has not been able to do since the start of the pandemic.

SOME WORKERS WARY OF FALSE HOPE

Some migrant workers are concerned that the hope that the pilot brings may be short-lived.

One worker, who gave his name as just Rubel, said that over the last one-and-a-half years, he has heard various rumours about the easing of restrictions, only to watch as community case numbers rose due to reasons such as the spread of the Delta variant, which led to even tighter restrictions being imposed.

“Previously, I thought maybe soon (we can be allowed back into the community)... the day after tomorrow, next month… but after 1.5 years, I feel more stressed. It looks like there is no solution,” the 30-year-old construction site supervisor said.

Speaking to the media at Westlite Mandai dormitory on Thursday as the gradual easing of the restrictions was announced, Dr Koh Poh Koon, Senior Minister of State for Manpower, said that one potential “black swan” event that may put the pilot on hold could be a new variant.

“(A new variant) would throw every calculation off the mark,” he said. “But barring that… even if there were a few infections (that are) asymptomatic and very mild, I think we can probably manage the risks.”

Mr Rubel said that it is not just the inability to socialise in the wider community that has led to the workers’ poor mental health, but also the inability to fly home like they used to in order to see their loved ones.

“We need to de-stress somewhere — go to the park, go into the community, meet with friends,” he said. “Even if we can’t go (to more places), we just want to go home and meet our family, but now we can’t do either.”

Mr Zakir also hopes that the pilot can be extended to cover more areas outside Little India.

“By this time, migrant workers have already proved that they are all already very accustomed to safety and hygiene, (other people do) not need to worry about them,” he said.

Mr Zakir said that his favourite location in Singapore is Pulau Ubin and that he often went there to relax before the pandemic. He hopes to be able to visit the island again, he said.

Asked if there will be plans for migrant workers to return fully into the community, Dr Koh said that it is presently “very hard to see far into the future” as Covid-19 has brought a lot of uncertainty.

He also said that the vaccination rate of the community and booster shots for both the community and migrant workers will give the authorities “a better measure of footing to say that we want to move in one direction, and not have to make U-turns”.

IMPROVE LIVING CONDITIONS SOON

While easing movement restriction of workers may be a good first step, Mr Zakir, who has worked in Singapore for 18 years, said that the dormitory design has been “unhealthy”.

“I think the Government has to do another initiative to show that they are really changing the design of the dorm,” he said. “This is important for the health of the workers.”

The cramped living conditions of the dormitories was a contributing factor to the large Covid-19 outbreaks among migrant workers last year and former manpower minister Josephine Teo vowed to improve the standards of their accommodation.

In an interview earlier this month, Manpower Minister Tan See Leng said that for future dormitories, MOM has done consultations with research institutes to work out the spacing and ventilation of the rooms among other needs, to make them more resilient to outbreaks.

For instance, the dorms will have “self-contained zones” so that workers do not intermingle in the event of a similar health crisis, and that more details will be released soon, he added.

MAINTAINING WORKERS' DIGNITY 

NGOs that spoke to TODAY largely welcomed the upcoming measures to let migrant workers get out more.

Ms Dipa Swaminathan, founder of community organisation It's Raining Raincoats (IRR), which supports migrant workers, said that volunteers are looking forward to resuming interactions with the workers.

“We hope measures will continue to be further relaxed in the weeks to come so that our brothers can have the same flexibility of movements as the rest of us,” she said.

Agreeing, Ms Anthea Ong, who initiated the community initiative Welcome In My Backyard (Wimby), said that the easing of controls is “overdue” and that the announcement is a “light at the end of the tunnel” for these workers.

“I am thankful that the escalating mental health and suicide risks that we have all been so concerned about have just been significantly reduced by this announcement,” she said. Ms Ong was a former Nominated Member or Parliament.

Ms Dipa said that the present pilot will cover only 2,000 workers a month, which is less than 1 per cent of the more than 275,000 migrant workers here who live in dormitories.

“We also hope the percentages go up as the pilot moves towards steady state.”

TRUSTING THE WORKERS

For Mr Rubel, the migrant worker, there is “no impact” in knowing that 500 people will be allowed out into the community each week, he said.

He had hoped for more general changes in the restrictions, such as workers being let out into the community once a month.

Mr Alex Au, vice-president of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), which promotes the equitable treatment of migrant workers, said that the pilot needs to expand not just in scale, but scope.

“(Workers) don’t want to just come out and look at shops and streets, they want to meet their friends and their brothers and cousins from other dorms, so the scheme must expand rapidly to involve these other factors.”

The NGOs also said that although workers have to stay in a stipulated area during their community visits, these rules should not be enforced but that there should be a trust-based system.

When TODAY asked how MOM will ensure that workers stay within the stipulated area, the ministry replied that more details on the pilot will be released next week.

Ms Ong said that the migrant workers have been the “most cooperative and compliant group of all groups” since the Covid-19 outbreaks in dormitories last year.

“I think if the communication on the measures is properly and thoroughly done... we should trust that they will abide by the measures.” 

Mr Au said that the workers are no different from working adults, and should be treated as such.

“I think (the Government) should trust that these are working people and they are responsible people. We shouldn’t treat them like potential criminals,” he added. “Let’s give them some respect.”

Related topics

Covid-19 Migrant Workers dormitory restrictions Little India MOM

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