SINGAPORE: Gazetting two dormitories as isolation areas is an "enormous undertaking", but the authorities are working hard to ensure the well-being of affected workers, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said in a media release on Monday (Apr 6).
This comes a day after the S11 Dormitory @ Punggol and Westlite Toh Guan Dormitory were gazetted as isolation areas following a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases at the two dormitories.
The move will see 19,800 workers across the two dormitories placed under quarantine, meaning they will have to stay in their rooms for the next 14 days.
Following the announcement, photos and videos circulating online appeared to show crowded and unsanitary conditions at the S11 Dormitory, and an ambulance and medical personnel at Westlite Toh Guan.
In its media release on Monday, MOM acknowledged there had been "challenges at the start", but said its officers have been "working round-the-clock" with the dormitory operators and partners to prioritise the well-being of their residents.
"We appreciate the workers’ patience and cooperation, and will continue to improve the conditions for the residents of the dormitories," said the ministry.
The gazetting of the dormitories was a "major decision" taken to protect the health and safety or workers, as well as the community, added MOM.
The decision builds on measures that had been progressively implemented at foreign worker dormitories throughout Singapore since the start of the novel coronavirus outbreak, such as closing amenities such as gyms and libraries, preventing intermingling between blocks and staggering meal times.
CATERED MEALS, CLEANING STEPPED UP
The authorities have been working to ensure workers in the dormitories have enough food and that premises are kept clean, said MOM.
Previously, residents were able to cook their own meals. However in order to minimise the risk of transmission via gatherings at the common kitchens, MOM said it has engaged caterers to deliver three meals a day for workers.
"We experienced teething problems with the portions, suitability and distribution," said the ministry, but added that the issues have been "progressively resolved".
To date, the caterers have delivered more than 65,000 portions of food and snacks, according to MOM.
Dormitory operators have also stepped cleaning efforts and deployed more cleaners to cope with the increased use of bathroom facilities and higher volumes of rubbish generated.
"At the same time, we have worked with the operators to encourage workers to play their part to keep the common areas clean," said MOM.
The operators will also ensure that rooms and common areas are disinfected and that rubbish is disposed of regularly.
"MOM will continue to keep a close eye on the dormitory conditions and will intervene where necessary to ensure standards are upheld," said the ministry. "Our officers will also act on feedback provided by dormitory residents on possible areas of improvement."
SHOULD STANDARDS BE RAISED?
The move to gazette the two dormitories as isolation areas has also brought the issue of foreign worker living conditions into the spotlight.
In a Facebook post on Monday morning, Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh said Singapore should re-examine the way it treats "our indispensable foreign workers".
Posting a photo of a Straits Times article reporting on cramped and crowded living conditions at S11 Dormitory, Prof Koh likened such dormitories to "a time bomb waiting to explode".
"The way Singapore treats its foreign workers is not first world but third world," he said. "The Government has allowed their employers to transport them in flat bed trucks with no seats."
"They stay in overcrowded dormitories and are packed likes sardines with 12 persons to a room. The dormitories are not clean or sanitary."
Should standards in foreign worker dormitories be raised?
"There’s no question in my mind, answer is 'yes'," said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo in a Facebook post on Monday night.
There are currently about 200,000 foreign workers in Singapore living in purpose-built dormitories like S11 Dormitory and Westlite Toh Guan, said the minister.
However before these dormitories were built, many had lived in "very poor and unhygienic conditions", often at the very sites where they worked which were unregulated, she said.
"This is why a decision was taken to build the current dormitories – to raise standards and take care of the workers well-being," she said, adding that there are 43 such dormitories in Singapore.
These are licensed under the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act and have to comply with minimum standards of cleanliness, water supply and hygiene.
"Each time we attempt to raise standards, employers yelp – these are added costs which they must eventually pass on," said Mrs Teo. "They ask MOM, 'are people prepared to pay more?' These workers are after all, involved in delivering important services for Singaporeans including construction."
Mrs Teo said she hoped the latest incident highlighted the importance of high standards at worker dormitories.
"I hope the COVID-19 episode demonstrates to the employers and wider public that raising standards at worker dormitories is not only the right thing to do, but also in our own interests," she said. "We should be willing to accept the higher costs that come with higher standards."
READ: Singapore sees record daily spike of 120 COVID-19 cases, 'significant number' linked to worker dormitories
As of Sunday, Westlite Toh Guan has seen 28 COVID-19 cases and 6,800 workers under quarantine, while S11 Dormitory has recorded 62 COVID-19 cases and 13,000 workers under quarantine.
Singapore saw a record spike in the number of COVID-19 patients on Sunday with 120 new cases reported.
A total of 1,309 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 as of Sunday. Six people have died from the disease in the country.