SINGAPORE: While the COVID-19 situation within larger foreign worker dormitories was mostly stable for now, the condition at smaller dorms was still “mixed” and “taking up much bandwidth”, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said in Parliament on Monday (May 4).
She was responding to questions from Members of Parliament on whether the measures to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak within the foreign worker community have been effective.
READ: COVID-19: On-site care facilities at some dormitories, designated spaces for recovered workers
The larger dormitories she referred to were the 43 purpose-built dormitories that house about 3,000 to 25,000 people each, and 200,000 foreign workers altogether. The 1,200-odd factory-converted dormitories are comparatively smaller, housing between 50 and 500 workers each, totalling about 95,000 workers.
Another 20,000 workers live in temporary quarters within construction sites.
The measures, which she described in her ministerial statement, include stationing medical teams at some of the dormitories, and catering food for the workers as they had to ban communal cooking.
Mrs Teo did not elaborate on how the conditions between the accommodations differed, but went on to say that the teams were actively testing the workers so they could isolate and treat them, and prevent the virus from further transmitting.
She added that most of the workers were well and those who tested positive were recovering, but said “the full results of these efforts will take time to show”.
Outside the dorms, infection among workers in the construction sector, said Mrs Teo, was noticeably higher than the general community, and has not tapered off.
The Government has attempted to further slow the COVID-19 spread by putting 100,000 work permit holders and S Pass holders in the construction sector who live outside the dorms, and their dependents, on a four-week stay-home notice, Mrs Teo said.
“While they may not be infectious, it is safer to minimise their interactions with each other and the broader community,” she added.
AVERTING COVID-19 RESURGENCE
Though the authorities were still taking steps to contain the spread of COVID-19, it was also looking at getting its recovery phase right, Mrs Teo said.
Part of the plan is building community recovery facilities and housing recovered workers in suitable accommodations to minimise the risks of recurrent transmissions, and finding a way to allow recovered and uninfected workers to go back to work safely.
“This will again be an enormous challenge, and not just the logistics of it,” Mrs Teo said, noting that the public officers dealing with the outbreaks among the foreign worker community were managing 400,000 migrant workers right now.
Workers will be re-housed and have to get used to new friends and habits, while employers will have to adjust to their workers being in different locations with new arrangements.
New methods to monitor the workers’ health would also need to be developed; one strategy in the pipeline would be to issue pulse oximeters and require the worker to take readings regularly, and turn to telemedicine, she said.
IMPROVING HOUSING STANDARDS
Mrs Teo also said that the Government would look at how to raise housing standards, especially at the older dormitories.
These purpose-built dorms sprang up in response to the construction workers’ needs as more of them started to come from China, Bangladesh, Myanmar and India to Singapore in the early 1990s, she said.
“One important consideration was, ‘what would a migrant worker want at the end of the work day, if he can’t see his family?’ Well, it is to be with his friends, cook a meal he liked, practise his religion,” she said.
Over the years, the Government had sought to raise housing standards by enacting regulations, such as the Foreign Employee Dormitory Act (FEDA) in 2015, she added.
Under the Act, dormitories that accommodate 1,000 or more workers must have health facilities like sickbays or isolation rooms and draw up contingency plans for quarantine arrangements.
"In early February, the Ministry of Manpower asked all FEDA-licenced dormitories to each put aside at least 10 quarantine rooms. Today, in dormitories with few infected workers, this provision has helped us to quickly isolate the close contacts," she said.
Smaller dwelling types, though not covered by the Act, must still comply with “a whole range” of laws set by various agencies, such as the National Environment Agency and the Building and Construction Authority.
Manpower ministry officers regularly inspect licensed dormitories to ensure compliance, she said. Last year, about 100 dormitory inspectors conducted 1,200 inspections and 3,000 investigations across all housing types.
Every year, the ministry penalises about 1,200 employers for unacceptable accommodation under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, and around 20 operators for breaching the Foreign Employee Dormitory Act licence conditions.
READ: Singapore developing nationwide COVID-19 testing strategy to better detect unlinked cases in community: Lawrence Wong
Improving current dormitory standards will not just require different space requirements, technical standards or stronger regulatory levers, she said in response to MP Louis Ng’s questions on amending the Act and development guidelines, but also “public education”.
“The virus respects no housing type, no nationality nor occupation. We will therefore need to re-look how everyone interacts with one another at home and at our workplaces,” she said.
“Even the way we socialise will have to change ... so the same for our migrant workers.”
But, she said, the focus right now is bringing the outbreak under control and resuming activities safely once the “circuit breaker” period was lifted.
“When this is over, we will reflect and thoroughly look into areas where we could have done better, so that we will be better prepared the next time.”
HOLDING GOVERNMENT, DORMITORY OPERATORS ACCOUNTABLE
During the parliamentary debate, nominated MP Anthea Ong asked if the Government would apologise to the workers for the “dismal conditions” at their dormitories.
Mrs Teo said the focus right now was on managing the workers’ health and financial situation, which she said were “things that they have asked of us”.
“I have not come across one single migrant worker himself that has demanded an apology,” she added.
She also said that it was unnecessary to compare Singapore’s response to other countries, after MP Liang Eng Hwa asked why Singapore’s foreign worker infection rate was much higher when compared to other countries that had a similarly large migrant worker population.
“In terms of dealing with COVID-19, countries have their own unique situation to deal with, including how they want to address the migrant workers-related issues,” Mrs Teo said.
MP Png Eng Huat later questioned that since taxpayers were footing the bill to look after foreign workers, if dormitory operators will be made to pay for their share in this entire project.
Mrs Teo said that calculating costs right now would make it impossible to get things done, but when the “appropriate time” came they would look at the issue.
One thing Mrs Teo noted authorities might do would be to put in place “stronger measures” to compel employers to update their workers’ details if the workers have shifted residences.
She was responding to MP Cheryl Chan’s question, who asked if authorities would improve contact tracing abilities among work permits and S Pass holders, since some of them were essential services workers.
“This updating is not as prompt as we would like it to be,” Mrs Teo said. “We will have to look into better ways of encouraging the workers and their employers to update this database.”