Singapore’s migrant dormitories emerge as hotbed for coronavirus

Linda J. Dodson

SINGAPORE — Explosive coronavirus clusters are emerging in densely packed dormitories for the migrant workers who keep Singapore’s economy going, despite the city-state’s strong outbreak containment measures.

On Thursday, the country reported 287 new cases, its biggest daily jump. The majority of the new patients are Indian and Bangladeshi nationals who had come to Singapore to work on construction sites and at shipyards. They live in dormitories, each of which houses thousands of workers.

The S11 Dormitory @ Punggol, home to 13,000 workers, had 283 confirmed cases as of Thursday. That alone accounts for 15% of the country’s total. Workers from Myanmar, the Philippines and China are also among the dormitory’s dwellers who have caught the virus.

According to the manpower ministry, there are 43 of these licensed dormitories in Singapore. The rooms these complexes offer are furnished with bunk beds so that six to 12 or sometimes more workers can share the same space.

The pandemic has reached into at least nine of these complexes.

The virus is believed to have found its way into the dormitories by infecting migrant workers at their workplaces or at a shopping center favored by the city’s South Asian communities. “That is where the virus had spread amongst them,” national development minister Lawrence Wong said during an online news conference on Thursday. “And then when they went back to their respective dorms, they transmitted it back to their fellow workers.”

A Bangladeshi construction worker in his late 20s who spoke to the Nikkei Asian Review on condition of anonymity pointed out another risk that the virus poses, now that it is in the migrant community. “So many people are in this dormitory and work for so many different companies,” he said. “All people are going to work in different places, and so many people working together, come back again, and go again.”

His dormitory has yet to have a confirmed infection. But living conditions are not ideal. He shares a room with 15 others who fan out to different work sites during the day. Now that his workplace is closed due to a four-week containment period that started this week, he spends more time in his room. “Sometimes someone comes near my bed,” he said, “then I cannot” maintain a physical distance of 1 meter.

The construction worker’s lack of personal space gets to the crux of the matter. “Most of the risks, particularly in the outbreak of a highly infectious disease, stem from overcrowding,” said Christine Pelly, an executive committee member of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a nonprofit organization. “It is virtually impossible to maintain the required social distancing needed to contain the disease in these dormitories.”

The crowded living spaces in these complexes are only part of the problem, though. “In cases where the dormitories are multistoried,” Pelly continued, “lifts and other limited communal facilities are spaces which are prime areas for clusters of infection. Facilities such as toilets will see high traffic now that workers are confined, [thus] maintaining necessary standards of hygiene will be a challenge.”

Luke Tan, operations manager of another group, the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics, and casework executive Desiree Leong shared a similar thought: These dorms are not like military camps, where soldiers are duty-bound to keep their barracks spick and span. Singapore’s migrant laborers “typically work very long hours in the day and come back only late at night, exhausted.” Maintaining sanitary conditions is often “overlooked or ignored.”

The virus was first noticed running through these dormitories late last month. On April 5, Singapore shut down and isolated two dormitories, including the S11, requiring the residents to stay inside. By Wednesday, the government had deployed a support team for all 43 dormitories, to ensure safe food distribution and cleanliness of the facilities. The government has also started moving healthy workers to military bases, vacant public apartments and other sites.

“We have a responsibility for these foreign workers,” minister Wong said. They “have come all the way here at considerable expense to make a living in Singapore.”

Among the measures it is taking to arrest the virus’s spread among migrant workers,¬†Singapore’s government is providing medical services in the country’s crowded dormitories. (Courtesy of Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower)¬†

Singapore is a wealthy nation of just under 6 million people that has long relied on foreign workers to keep its homes, shipyards, construction sites and manufacturing sector humming. The tiny speck of a country had about 1.4 million foreign workers, including white collar employees, as of last June. Of the total, 284,000 were construction workers and 255,000 were domestic workers.

The majority of low-wage work permit holders in the construction and marine sectors are from South Asia, according to TWC2’s Pelly. These workers, most of whom have paid a significant amount of money to a recruiter for their job, hope to work in the city-state for at least two years. But some do not last a year.

Now that nonessential workplaces are shut down, some workers worry about losing potential income. “Every month, I need to send money to my family for my father’s medicine,” the Bangladeshi man in his late 20s said. His monthly base wage is below SG$500 ($354), with total monthly income of around SG$800 to SG$1,000, a typical range for a South Asian construction worker.

The government has rolled out some relief for employers, such as a waiver of the foreign worker levy for this month. However, in a statement released on Wednesday, TWC2 called for more government financial support for foreign workers, such as expanding a 75% wage subsidy scheme to include them.

“Foreign employees are just as vital for Singapore,” the statement says. “To lose them because their employers did not get enough support through this period would handicap these employers when times improve. … Having to recruit foreign workers all over again after the pandemic would slow down the recovery and bounce.”

In a video message released on Friday afternoon, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself acknowledged that these workers “have played an important part” in building housing, airports and train lines.

“We have worked with their employers to make sure they will be paid their salaries, and can remit money home,” Lee said. “We will provide them with the medical care and treatment that they need.”

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