The Spike in Singapore’s Coronavirus Cases Reveals an Uncomfortable Truth About the Treatment of Migrant Workers

Singapore’s ‘invisible population’ now make up over half of the country’s COVID-19 cases.
Koh Ewe
Singapore's Migrant Workers Suffer Coronavirus Pandemic
Men look out from a dormitory used by foreign workers at Cochrane Lodge 2, which has been made an isolation area to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Singapore on April 15, 2020. Photo by ROSLAN RAHMAN / AFP. 

Since April 13, Singapore has been reporting over 300 cases of COVID-19 every day, in what appears to be a worrying spike in the coronavirus pandemic.

Previously hailed as the poster child of outbreak management, the rise in the number of cases in the past week has caught authorities off guard. A closer look at the numbers reveal that most of the cases are concentrated among migrant workers, a group often neglected by the government. These migrants come from countries like India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, and typically work in labour-intensive sectors such as construction and the maritime industry, on short-term contracts. Most of them live in dormitories, where as many as 20 people can share one room, leaving them more susceptible to catching the virus.


Thursday, April 16 saw 728 confirmed infections, the highest number of cases recorded in the city-state in a single day. Among these cases, 654 are foreign workers living in dormitories, while 26 are foreign workers living outside dormitories.

Out of over 4,400 COVID-19 cases in Singapore, over 2,600 are migrant workers. That’s about 60 percent of all local cases. This has led some Singaporeans to unfairly blame the spike on foreign workers.

“There is a huge increase in the number of cases in migrant worker dormitories. Aren’t the migrant workers themselves responsible for this? They like to gather and have poor personal hygiene, isn’t this part of the reason?” a letter to a local newspaper reads.

Singapore went into “circuit breaker” mode on April 7, a lockdown of sorts which imposed tight restrictions on public activity. While most Singaporeans practise social distancing by staying at home, more than 300,000 migrant workers in Singapore continue to deal with cramped living conditions in dormitories provided by private operators, a major red flag for virus transmission.

The marginalisation of migrant workers in Singapore has always been lurking underneath the self-proclaimed multi-cultural society. According to a 2019 report published by the International Labour Organization, about half of Singaporeans think that migrant workers “threaten the country’s culture and heritage.” Sixty percent of the respondents also felt that migrants cannot expect the same pay or benefits as nationals for the same job.


Singapore’s recent explosion in the number of coronavirus cases offers a look at the vulnerabilities of migrant communities, a striking reminder of how the virus disproportionately affects marginalised segments of society. Until now, migrant workers living in cramped conditions were a blindspot in the government’s virus management strategy.

While Singaporeans returning home from abroad are quarantined in 5-star hotel rooms paid by the government, migrant workers under quarantine are put up in bunk rooms with wonky facilities, The Straits Times reported. The reality is that, in the time of coronavirus, migrant workers in Singapore are being rejected by the urban landscape which they’ve literally helped to build.

This irony is not lost on many Singaporeans who are now recognising the contributions of the country’s largely invisible migrant worker population.

Retired diplomat Tommy Koh also joined the conversation with an impassioned Facebook post, calling on Singaporeans to “treat our indispensable foreign workers like a First World country should and not in the disgraceful way in which they are treated now.”

Some Singaporeans have started grassroots campaigns to support migrant workers during the coronavirus outbreak, such as the Migrants We Care fundraising campaign, which aims to provide daily necessities and financial subsidies for migrant workers. As of Friday, April 17, the campaign has raised over SG$814,000 ($572,000), exceeding its initial target of SG$800,000.

Other initiatives include the COVID-19 Migrant Support Coalition, a collaboration between several Singapore NGOs to help migrant workers affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

The government, however, has yet to provide migrants the same benefits it gives citizens. It is now working to curb the spread of the contagion in the community, but instead of moving workers to hotels like Singaporeans, the government is looking into housing them in “floating hotels,” typically used as accommodation for those in the marine industry.

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