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Welfare of migrant workers was ‘on the radar’ early in Covid-19 outbreak: Josephine Teo

SINGAPORE — The well-being of migrant workers during the Covid-19 outbreak was “on the radar” of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) as early as the start of this year, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo on Monday (May 4).

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said the first two phases of the Covid-19 outbreak among the migrant worker community were focused on getting the basics and medical operations in place.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said the first two phases of the Covid-19 outbreak among the migrant worker community were focused on getting the basics and medical operations in place.

SINGAPORE — The well-being of migrant workers during the Covid-19 outbreak was “on the radar” of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) as early as the start of this year, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo on Monday (May 4).

The MOM had contacted dormitory operators after Singapore’s first confirmed case of Covid-19 on Jan 23, asking them to be more vigilant and to step up their hygiene standards, said Mrs Teo during a ministerial statement on the Covid-19 situation.

MOM also produced materials in the migrant workers’ native languages to “encourage them to take steps to protect themselves” and subsequently closed non-essential facilities in dormitories like gyms and television rooms.

Meal times and recreational hours were also staggered and MOM did not allow workers to socialise between different blocks, Mrs Teo added.

“MOM officers also fanned out on weekends, to advise migrant workers to observe safe distancing measures and disperse big groups that were gathering at popular hangouts,” she said.

She pointed out that in the initial phases of the pandemic, there was no indication of a higher prevalence of Covid-19 among migrant workers, compared with the general community.

The most prominent cluster of infected migrant workers early on in the outbreak was from Seletar Aerospace Heights, which was detected in February.

This involved five workers staying at five different locations with two workers living in dormitories, Mrs Teo said.

“Once evidence emerged that the virus had spread in the dormitories, we decided to deal with it squarely and quickly, and mobilise whole-of-government resources,” she said.

Mrs Teo said that nearly 3,000 private and public sector staff are now deployed to look after the health and well-being of about 400,000 migrant workers.

Due to the multiple channels of transmission among migrant workers, she said a “focus on rooming arrangements” may not prevent a recurrence of the disease.

“This consideration underpins the comprehensive approach of the taskforce,” she said.

This consists of a “three-prong strategy” that focuses on containing the spread of the virus within the dormitories where clusters have formed, preventing the spread in those with no clusters, and moving out and testing all workers who are still needed for essential work.

Mrs Teo said the first two phases of the Covid-19 outbreak among the migrant worker community were focused on getting the basics and medical operations in place.

The third phase, which the Government is now in the middle of, is focused on the housing of recovering workers. 

New strategies, she said, will be developed to monitor the health of the workers. These include plans to issue pulse oximeters and a requirement for workers to take their readings regularly, as well as implement telemedicine. 

MOM WILL RAISE STANDARDS

Mrs Teo said that various regulatory agencies conduct inspections of the dormitories.

Last year, MOM’s 100 dormitory inspectors conducted 1,200 inspections and 3,000 investigations across all housing types.

As a result, every year, MOM takes an average of 1,200 employers to task for unacceptable accommodation under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act and about 20 operators for breach of Foreign Employee Dormitory Act (FEDA) licence conditions.

Mrs Teo told the House that a key milestone in raising housing standards for migrant workers was the enactment of FEDA in 2015.

Under the Act, she said higher standards are imposed on dormitories that accommodate 1,000 or more workers.

For instance, she said licensed operators are required to provide common recreational facilities such as television rooms and gyms, as well as amenities like minimarts and Wi-Fi in common areas.

Beyond that, she said FEDA also requires the dormitories to have health facilities like sick bays or isolation rooms and to draw up contingency plans for quarantine arrangements.

MOM officers regularly inspect licensed dormitories for compliance as well, she said.

In early February, Mrs Teo said all FEDA-licensed dormitories were required by MOM to put aside at least 10 quarantine rooms each.

“Today, in dormitories with few infected workers, this provision has helped us to quickly isolate the close contacts,” she said.

Nevertheless, Mrs Teo said MOM will “see how standards can be raised”, particularly in older dormitories.

To do this, they will need to canvass feedback from migrant workers, dormitory operators, employers and health experts.

WILL THE GOVERNMENT APOLOGISE TO MIGRANT WORKERS?

After Mrs Teo’s ministerial statement, Nominated Member of Parliament Anthea Ong asked if the Government would consider issuing an apology to the migrant workers here, given the “dismal conditions” that they are in.

In response, Mrs Teo said her ministry works very closely with the workers on a regular basis at the dormitories and even outside the dormitories.

She said that feedback garnered from the Forward Assurance and Support Team — which was set up, among other things, to help foreign workers isolated in their dormitories get their food on time — found that the topic of an apology was never raised.

Instead, she said the workers were focused on how they could avoid falling sick, and if they do, how they would be taken care of. 

They were also concerned about having their wages paid, and how they could remit money home. 

“These are the things that they have asked of us,” she said. “I have not come across one single migrant worker that has demanded an apology.” 

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LOCAL EMPLOYMENT SITUATION

During her statement, Mrs Teo also spoke about how the MOM was tackling the economic fallout brought about by the pandemic.

Through the Jobs Support Scheme, which sees the Government paying for 75 per cent of the first S$4,600 earned by all Singaporean workers in April and May, employers are encouraged to retain workers, she said.

Direct support was also being given to lower-wage workers, such as through Workfare payouts which will amount to S$2.2 billion this year.

Mrs Teo said special effort has also been made to support freelancers and self-employed persons (SEPs).

By the end of May, she said SEP Income Relief Scheme (SIRS) expects close to S$1 billion to be paid out to over 100,000 self-employed persons.

Noting that finding a job during this period would also “not be easy”, Mrs Teo said the SGUnited Jobs initiative was launched in March and more than 16,000 immediate jobs vacancies have been made available, more than the initial target of 10,000 jobs.

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