Migrant workers in Singapore
Migrant workers queue for food and water at a dormitory in Singapore. Photo: Roslan Rahman / AFP

COVID Dorm Outbreak: Has Singapore Learned To Treat Its Migrant Workers Better?

“The government thought last year’s dormitory outbreak was only a public health emergency. But the reality is far from that.”
June 3, 2021, 3:42am

Bangladeshi construction worker Nasri was among tens of thousands of migrant laborers in Singapore who tested positive for the coronavirus last year after an outbreak swept through crowded dormitories, prompting impassioned calls to improve labor conditions for them in the Southeast Asian city-state.

For weeks, the father of two young girls battled severe chest pains and COVID-related respiratory tract infections in hospital. “I was afraid I would die and not see my wife and daughters again,” he said. Nasri spoke to VICE World News on condition of using only his first name, for fear of reprisal from his employers and the authorities.  

Though his treatment was fully covered and he eventually turned the corner, Nasri said the episode scarred him. He now wants to return to his family in Dhaka despite the $650 monthly salary he draws in Singapore, much more than he could earn at home. He also said life in Singapore had “not improved much” since last year’s dormitory wave, even with the amount of global attention the story received.

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“I want to leave Singapore and make a clean start while I still can, even if it means forfeiting a stable salary,” he said.

Migrant workers at a construction site in Singapore. Photo: Roslan Rahman / AFP

Migrant workers at a construction site in Singapore. Photo: Roslan Rahman / AFP

Singapore’s early efforts at curbing the spread of COVID were lauded by global experts and observers. But that narrative crumbled when the virus reached migrant worker dormitories on the outskirts of the city, housing tens of thousands of workers from China, Southeast Asia and South Asia —with up to 30 men being made to share a single room. 

The outbreak caught the government by surprise at a time when the pandemic was helping reveal the extent of inequality across many wealthy countries. 

Workers paint a railing along the Singapore River. Photo: Roslan Rahman / AFP

Workers paint a railing along the Singapore River. Photo: Roslan Rahman / AFP

In a speech last April, Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong directly addressed the migrant worker community, promising them that they would be well looked after and cared for in the same way as Singaporeans.

“We will look after your health, your welfare and your livelihood,” Lee said. 

Safety measures were extended to the dormitories. Migrant workers were isolated, tested and treated and placed under intense surveillance, their movements severely restricted in compliance with the rules.

Through rigorous mass testing, mandatory site closures and strict quarantine rules, the government was able to bring things under control.

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Strict measures were lifted last July in the city-state. Schools and workplaces reopened, with malls, gyms, cinemas and restaurants following suit. Public and religious gatherings also resumed.

But Singapore has since returned to a semi-lockdown state to stem a recent rise in community cases. While cases have dropped, the country remains in “heightened alert”.

Measures are set to ease again in mid-June, with life expected to return to relative normalcy – at least for some.

A worker is tested for the coronavirus at a dormitory in Singapore. Photo: Roslan Rahman / AFP

A worker is tested for the coronavirus at a dormitory in Singapore. Photo: Roslan Rahman / AFP

For migrant laborers, little has changed with regards to their welfare.

One year on, they claim they are still being confined to crowded living conditions and are subjected to unsanitary and dangerous working environments. Advocacy groups say workers’ freedom and movements are still limited.

A migrant worker sits in a room at a foreign workers' dormitory. Photo: Roslan Rahman / AFP

A migrant worker sits in a room at a foreign workers' dormitory. Photo: Roslan Rahman / AFP

Hamid, a 36-year-old worker from India, told VICE World News that he and others were in constant close contact in the dormitories. He also said he was especially concerned about the virus emerging again after Singapore’s recent outbreak. He requested not to be identified by his full name for fear of reprisal from the authorities.

VICE World News contacted Singapore’s manpower ministry to ask about government measures to improve migrant workers’ welfare following last year’s outbreak.

Addressing claims by workers who said their living conditions had hardly improved, a ministry spokesperson said in an email that “efforts had been taken to ensure their welfare”, and referred back to a previous speech made in March that addressed the issue. 

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In that speech, Minister Tan See Leng said officials would “continue to maintain tight measures” in the dormitories to minimize virus transmission rates. 

“These include safe management measures, rostered routine testing every 14 days, as well as the distribution of contact tracing devices to our migrant workers,” Tan said. He also admitted that the ministry’s work in the dormitories “was far from done”.

“As we continue to battle the evolving global and local situation, we continue to take on board the valuable lessons that we have learnt from the past many months of managing this current pandemic.”

Employers agreed with the government’s stance, and told Singaporean state media outlets that their workers had been “adapting well” to new measures in place to curb the spread of the virus with regards to safe distancing and contact tracing. 

But photos seen by VICE World News, recently taken in worker dormitories, painted a more complex picture. One image showed queues of workers within a compound while another showed four men in a small makeshift bedroom that did not allow for much social distancing.

In April, precautionary measures and strict quarantine orders were again enforced after 24 workers who previously recovered from COVID-19 re-tested positive for the disease—the largest number of infections in migrant worker dormitories in months.

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While the recent cluster was contained relatively quickly due to increased measures like routine testing and immediate isolation, deeper issues still need to be addressed.

Hamid and other migrant workers are not just concerned about COVID, but their personal safety and welfare in general.

He spends hours on the road every day, cramped together with at least eight other workers at the back of open-air lorries that ferry them to and from work sites like “cattle”. In Singapore, migrant workers are prohibited by their employers from using public transport while on the job.

Hamid said that seat belts are not provided for workers in the lorries, offering them little to zero protection from intense heat and rain, as well as collision with other vehicles. Critics say the lack of safety standards has led to fatal road accidents involving migrant workers on highways.

In a parliamentary session held in May, senior state minister Amy Khor from the transport ministry rejected suggestions to ferry workers in mini-buses or buses with compulsory seat-belting, arguing that further regulatory changes would cause “more acute pain” to the industry which was already dealing with fallout from the pandemic.

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“It would be ideal for lorries not to carry any passengers in their rear decks but there are very significant practical and operational issues on top of just cost considerations, which is probably why internationally, it is (a common) practice,” she said, pointing out that tougher non-compliance safety penalties and rules on guardrails and canopies had been introduced years ago.

“Further regulations will likely have impact on the completion of various building projects and it will spell the demise of some companies and the loss of workers’ livelihoods.”

Laxed safety standards resulted in fatal road accidents involving migrant workers. Photo: Roslan Rahman / AFP

Laxed safety standards resulted in fatal road accidents involving migrant workers. Photo: Roslan Rahman / AFP

Advocacy groups expressed disappointment with what they called a lack of drastic change on the part of the authorities to improve the overall well being of workers, even after dormitory caseloads were controlled last year.

Local activist Jolovan Wham, who focuses on migrant worker rights, argued that societal attitudes towards laborers contribute to the problem.

“Migrant workers are here to do the dirty, dangerous and demeaning jobs that Singaporeans don’t want to do and are treated as such,” Wham said.

“Migrant workers are here to do the dirty, dangerous and demeaning jobs that Singaporeans don’t want to do and are treated as such.”

“Our political leaders view them as economic units and would rather prioritize industry gains over their health and safety,” he added. “They are only taken care of because they are instrumental to our needs, and only just enough so that they don’t start riots or cause another COVID outbreak.” 

A man looks on from the balcony of a dormitory. Photo: Roslan Rahman / AFP

A man looks on from the balcony of a dormitory. Photo: Roslan Rahman / AFP

Singapore missing the mark in regards to treatment of migrant workers could well cost the city-state profoundly, especially if things don’t change.

Charities and welfare organizations like the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economies (HOME), a Singapore-based group that supports workers who have been exploited and abused, told VICE World News that many workers are still “bearing the brunt” of last year’s outbreak.

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“Migrant workers feel they have no choice but to tolerate [these conditions] because they cannot risk losing their jobs during the pandemic,” the group said in a statement.

It added that many workers reported still being confined to their dormitory compounds and were not allowed to leave even on their days off. They were also allegedly threatened with repatriation if they complained or did not comply with requests that expected them to work long hours.

“They are under immense emotional and physiological stress. Their hopes to regain basic freedoms have been dashed.” 

A worker takes a nap while waiting for transport. Photo: Photo: Roslan Rahman / AFP

A worker takes a nap while waiting for transport. Photo: Photo: Roslan Rahman / AFP

Migrant workers take a break. Photo: Roslan Rahman / AFP

Migrant workers take a break. Photo: Roslan Rahman / AFP

Singapore’s manpower ministry publicly acknowledged a labor crunch. Existing workers are now in high demand because new arrivals haven’t been replacing the workers who are leaving. Construction sites remained closed, with multiple building projects stalled. 

One group, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), noted in a recent report that the market had become extremely competitive, with firms vying for existing workers who were keen to transfer out to other jobs for more pay. But the report said competition has resulted in more exploitation and threats towards workers who wanted higher wages. 

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“We are currently seeing an exodus of migrant workers who suffered during the outbreak and paid the price with their mental health,” the group’s vice president Alex Au told VICE World News. 

Au’s volunteers were seeing “a new rise” among workers choosing not to renew their work permits and contracts in favor of returning home. With borders shut, he does not see the labor crisis ending any time soon and said that it would ultimately be Singapore’s loss if outstanding issues were not resolved.

Because the government has failed to heed the call to treat migrant workers better, he said, “we are now losing strong and productive workers who have grown sick and tired of the poor conditions they have been subjected to for years.”

“They are choosing to leave because they’ve had enough,” he said.

“Our leaders thought that last year's dormitory outbreak was only a public health problem but the reality is far from that,” he added. “There were many important lessons for us to learn but we clearly haven’t.”

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