SINGAPORE: The decision to build new migrant worker dormitories to reduce the current living densities following the spread of COVID-19 at these facilities is a step in the right direction, said various groups focusing on migrant workers’ welfare.
In light of the current situation, the key consideration observed in the new standards "are the safe distancing measures to provide better protection for the migrant workers residing there," said the Migrant Workers’ Centre.
But even with new dorms that have improved living space, there are other aspects to living conditions which could be considered, said representatives from the groups.
Speaking to CNA, Mr Alex Au, vice president of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), said the organisation is happy the Government is moving in this direction.
“Of course it would have been better if action had been taken early on, but at least they are moving in a direction which we think is the right way to go, which is to spread (the workers) out more and reduce the densities in each location,” Mr Au said.
“It’s very encouraging and definitely a move in the right direction,” agreed Ms Dipa Swaminathan, founder of migrant worker welfare group It's Raining Raincoats.
Migrant workers living in these dorms are the hardest-hit demographic in Singapore during the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, about 94 per cent of the 38,514 COVID-19 infections in Singapore are linked to these living quarters, according to the Ministry of Health.
As part of long term arrangements to help migrant workers, the authorities announced last week plans for new purpose-built dormitories with improved standards over the next few years to house up to 100,000 workers.
Before that, the Government aims to pilot the improved set of standards at temporary Quick Build Dormitories (QBDs) first, including more living space per resident, a smaller occupancy in each room, fewer workers sharing wet facilities, and more sick bay beds and isolation facilities.
“THE OLD DORM IS VERY SMALL”
Under the improved standards, there will be at least one toilet, bathroom and sink for every five dormitory residents. Previously there was a minimum of one set, with a urinal, to 15 beds.
Ms Dipa said this was “better than what it is now” and Mr Au expressed a similar view saying the changes to toilet facilities were “quite reasonable”.
“We are proposing four, but five is quite reasonable. There is definitely an improvement there,” he said, explaining the current “barrack style” design, where potentially hundreds of people share wet facilities, has proven to be a problem during the coronavirus pandemic.
Ms Dipa continued: “I think if we can come up with a solution where they don’t need to queue up, that will be a big help.”
When the new standards are piloted, each resident will have minimum of 6 sq m of living space, up from the current 4.5 sq m. There will also be a maximum of 10 beds in a room when there were no limits previously.
Mr Au said that countries like Qatar have also implemented a minimum of 6 sq m for each resident, but are still facing infection problems.
“This tells us that 6 sq m per person is not good enough,” Mr Au said, proposing 7.5 sq m instead.
At the same time, workers CNA spoke to from a dorm in Toh Guan welcomed the idea of having fewer men in the room and more space for each person, including a move away from bunk beds.
“The changes are very good because the old dorm very small,” said one resident who did not want to be named.
“It is enough to have six or seven people in a room. The rooms now have double decker beds with people sleeping on top and below. When the person sleeping on the top (bunk) rotates, it disturbs those on the bottom (bunk). It’s a problem.”
READ: Can Singapore rely less on foreign workers? It's not just about dollars and cents, say observers
OTHER ASPECTS TO IMPROVE DORM LIFE
As Singapore embarks on a reassessment of how foreign workers should be housed, the groups suggested that other issues like laundry, cross ventilation, better transport and well-being facilities could also be addressed.
Improving well-being, Ms Dipa said, can be as easy as dedicating a small space within the dorm for a desk and chair.
“It would be great if there were medical facilities … I’m not saying a major clinic ... maybe a doctor that is available for a few hours every week and it doesn’t have to be every day.
“They’re human beings as well. If they have a fever, a toothache, some muscle pain, there’s somebody they can go to hopefully free-of-charge.”
She went on to explain that this space does not only need to be for medical access. It could also be used by an information provider, doctor, pro bono lawyers or even a counsellor.
“It’s not much to ask for, but it would make a huge difference,” she said.
Food, Mr Au said, is also a “very major part of a sense of well-being”, suggesting more kitchenettes in the new dorms would be welcome.
In terms of laundry and ventilation, when workers hang their wet clothes in the rooms to dry, it makes the rooms very humid as well, he said. To fix this, he suggested having a back balcony for laundry away from where they sleep.
Cross ventilation also helps make rooms more comfortable with a draft of air, and for this, there should be windows on opposite sides.
Transport access could be improved on too, he said.
“A fairly constant complaint is that transport access to the dormitories in the far flung regions of Singapore is difficult because they choose to build them in the industrial estate.
“A lot of workers are complaining that access is very difficult and what we would suggest is that it should be part of a dormitory operator’s contract to also provide regular shuttle services to the nearest MRT station.”
In the short-term, authorities have stated that “some dormitories will inevitably be located closer to residential areas” because of land constraint issues.
In turn, the Government urged Singaporeans to reject the “not in my backyard” mindset as well, an issue that was highlighted online as push back mounted from people who cited “cleanliness” concerns and “cultural” differences as reasons against bringing dorms closer to residential areas.
“I think this is born out of lack of interaction with migrant workers and I think people are reacting based on stereotypes. Very few Singaporeans have ever met them, talked to them, worked alongside them … they’re just like you and me,” said Mr Au.
Ms Dipa added: “Just think of them as neighbours. They are human beings and they are here to help build Singapore.”
READ: The Big Read - Solving Singapore’s foreign workers problem requires serious soul searching, from top to bottom
ENGAGEMENT AMONG GOVERNMENT, NGOS, WORKERS
As these new standards are to be piloted at the short-term Quick Build Dormitories (QBD) first, the Migrant Workers’ Centre hopes this can be a learning opportunity.
“The actual operation of QBDs with these new standards can provide learning points and highlight shortcoming that would be useful in the drafting of a more comprehensive set of standards for the new (Purpose Built Dormitories), said Chairman of the Centre Mr Yeo Guat Kwang said.
“Hence, it is still too early to deem if the changes proposed are adequate or lacking as there are still other areas like management standards that are not addressed yet.”
“The MWC would be glad to contribute to the discussion in the drafting of the new migrant workers housing standards.”
With the new standards soon to be piloted, Mr Au added he would like to see more consultation between the Government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This would allow for communication channels where different views are expressed.
Aside from just the Government and NGOs, Ms Dipa said migrant workers themselves should be part of the conversation to give feedback on issues with the existing living arrangements.