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The Big Read: A year after the first COVID-19 outbreak in dorms, how has life changed for foreign workers?

The Big Read: A year after the first COVID-19 outbreak in dorms, how has life changed for foreign workers?

A year after the first dorm cluster was identified, many foreign workers have returned to work, but are still living with strict movement restrictions. (Photo: TODAY/Raj Nadarajan)

SINGAPORE: On most days, Mr Al Amin, a foreign worker who hails from Bangladesh, leaves for work at 7am and returns to his dormitory room at around 8pm.

He spends his remaining waking hours doing chores such as laundry and cooking dinner. He then catches up with his family back home over the phone before calling it a night.

The 27-year-old’s routine is a far cry from his “independent” lifestyle in pre-pandemic days.

“Before COVID-19, we could go out to the shops or the field and spend our time there ... But now, we come back from work and just stay in our rooms.”

“That’s why I say nowadays staying in a dormitory is like being in jail and does not feel like a resident,” said the technician who stays at ASPRI-Westlite Papan dormitory in Jurong East.

For others, such as fellow Bangladeshi Mr Miraz (not his real name) who stays in Jurong Penjuru dormitory, it is the boredom that is hard to beat.

“We cannot use the gym or go downstairs. I cannot meet my friends to talk. Even though there is a lake just in front of the dormitory, we cannot even go there to sit,” said the 29-year-old site supervisor who did not want to give his real name for fear of getting into trouble with his employer and dormitory operator.

READ: COVID-19: No spike in number of migrant worker suicides, says MOM

With the COVID-19 situation improving in Singapore, he suggested that the Government allow foreign workers to go out into the community. The number of people who can leave the dormitories at any one time can be staggered, he said.

Mr Miraz may not have to wait long, with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) saying that dormitory residents will be able to visit the community in “controlled numbers” once a month in the near future. 

“When a large majority of dorm residents are recovered workers or vaccinated and the risk of transmission in dormitories is greatly reduced, we can ease restrictions further,” said an MOM spokesperson in response to TODAY’s queries.

Foreign workers have been mostly confined to their dormitories ever since the first dormitory cluster at S11 @ Punggol was identified on Mar 30 last year.

At that time, the virus spread quickly among the workers who lived in densely-packed rooms which could house up to 20 people each. At the peak of the outbreak in April last year — when Singapore entered the circuit breaker period  —  more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases were identified in dormitories daily. 

The rate of infection forced the Government to impose strict curbs on the movement of foreign workers, confining them to their rooms.

It also activated a team to support dormitory operators in managing the pandemic. This included providing food to workers, moving some to temporary accommodation to reduce the density of dormitories, and rolling out a mass swabbing exercise to identify COVID-19 cases. Employers were told to house workers from the same worksites or companies in the same rooms as much as possible.

To date, the pandemic has infected tens of thousands of foreign workers living in dormitories, with two workers succumbing to COVID-19 complications. 

READ: IN FOCUS: The long, challenging journey to bring COVID-19 under control in migrant worker dormitories

READ: COVID-19: More than a third of Singaporean or PR cases in May linked to dormitory clusters

As of Friday (Mar 26), Singapore has reported 60,265 cases of COVID-19 infections. 

In total, nearly half of the more than 320,000 foreign workers living in dormitories have tested positive for COVID-19 in polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or serology tests. Serology tests look for the presence of antibodies and can detect previous infections in people who had few or no symptoms. 

In total, nearly half of the over 320,000 foreign workers living in dormitories have tested positive for COVID-19 in polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or serology tests. (Photo: TODAY/Raj Nadarajan)

However, the situation has eased in the past few months. In August, all dormitories were declared clear of the virus and workers gradually returned to work. The last case detected in a dormitory was on Feb 28. 

The workers are also allowed to use communal facilities such as kitchens and minimarts in their dormitories in staggered timings, provided their dormitory operator has received the green light from MOM.

Foreign workers can also visit one of the eight recreation centres, which house facilities such as supermarkets and food centres, thrice a week for four hours each visit, which they must book through MOM’s SGWorkPass mobile application in advance.

Despite the relaxation in rules, foreign workers told TODAY they continue to feel confined to their dormitories one year on, and look forward to returning to the community as they did pre-COVID.

On Wednesday, the multi-ministry COVID-19 task force was asked at a press conference why migrant workers are still subjected to more stringent measures compared to the rest of the community even though cases have fallen considerably among the population. 

Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the task force, reiterated that the migrant worker dormitories “remain places where one single case can easily spread to many other workers” because of the high-risk nature of their living and work environments. 

“In construction, for example, despite our best efforts with having different zones and avoiding intermingling of workers, it’s very hard to really make sure that there is that kind of segregation taking place all the time,” he said. 

READ: MOM unveils onboarding centre for new migrant workers; COVID-19 jabs to begin at 30 dorms

While going back to their lives as they knew it is their immediate wish, the future for the foreign workers in a post-pandemic Singapore remains a subject of national conversation. 

The COVID-19 outbreak in the dorms has raised questions about Singapore’s treatment of its migrant workers, and there is widespread acknowledgment that their living conditions have to be improved. 

The Government has since looked into the matter and introduced new specifications to give each resident more living space. The specifications are being piloted in several temporary dorms which have been built to reduce the density in existing dorms. 

The finalised specifications will be announced later this year. Aimed at making dormitories pandemic-proof and preventing a recurrence of the COVID-19 outbreak, these specifications will be incorporated into the 11 new purpose-built dormitories that the Government plans to build over the next one to two years.

While some of these changes bode well for the workers’ welfare, they will come at a cost to consumers and taxpayers, industry players told TODAY.

DEALING WITH STRESS AND BOREDOM

At the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in dormitories, reports of migrant workers suffering from mental health issues or attempting suicide due to prolonged isolation emerged.

One year on, the restrictions placed on dormitories have had varying impacts on their residents. While some foreign workers told TODAY that they no longer felt as worried as they did before, others continued to feel stressed over being cooped up with other residents.

Mr Veeraiyan Hariprasath, a 28-year-old maintenance worker staying at The Leo Dormitory at Kaki Bukit, said that during the circuit breaker, he felt greatly disturbed after hearing about deaths from COVID-19. Unable to go to work, he was also concerned about his financial security. 

READ: MOM to pilot onboarding centres for newly arrived migrant workers

However, these fears abated in August after the dorm outbreak came under control and the Indian national was able to resume work.

Mr Hariprasath said that as his job requires him to travel around the island, he does not feel as restricted or stressed as other foreign workers who can only travel between their rooms and work sites.

At the other end of the spectrum is Mr Al Amin, who said that his stress level had only reduced “from 100 per cent to 90 per cent” now.

Initially anxious about whether he would survive the pandemic (he did not contract the virus), he is now stressed about having no avenue to relieve the pressures he faces at work.

“Sometimes the boss will order you around or the supervisor will shout. There’s so much pressure and you cannot refresh your mind at the workplace,” Mr Al Amin said.

Having to return from work to a room full of 16 people engaging in various activities, such as cooking or watching a video on loudspeaker, means that it is difficult to find a peaceful moment for mental rejuvenation, he added. 

Squabbles among his roommates are also common as the activity of one could disturb another, said Mr Al Amin.

While he could opt to go to a recreation centre on his rest days, he prefers not to as “everywhere (in the centre) is queue, queue, queue”, given the crowds.

READ: A year since COVID-19, dorm life leaves migrant workers still hoping for better

Other workers said that living conditions had not improved much, one year after dormitory standards came under the national spotlight.

Mr Miraz, who moved into Jurong Penjuru Dormitory three months ago, said that with 16 people sharing “a very small space”, the living situation still felt the same as it did before COVID-19.

He was previously staying at Kranji Lodge 1 where there were 12 people in a room.

The double-decker beds in his current room are so near to one another that they do not meet the 1m safe distancing requirement. The room is also hot, with workers having to buy their own fans, he added.

Migrant worker groups have questioned the necessity for restrictions on foreign workers as the Covid-19 situation in Singapore has improved.

In a statement last September, migrant worker group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) argued that the Government should allow workers out of their dormitories, given the low number of COVID-19 cases detected among them and efforts to isolate positive cases.

Medical experts, too, agreed that there is now little reason to impose restrictions on these workers.

With almost half of dormitory residents having tested positive for COVID-19, these workers have already achieved herd immunity, said experts. Herd immunity means that a large part of the population has become immune to the disease, providing protection to non-immune individuals.

READ: Singapore to vaccinate migrant workers against COVID-19, starting with 10,000 dormitory residents

Associate Professor Alex Cook, from the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said that of the three factors keeping COVID-19 under control in dormitories — herd immunity, regular testing and restrictions on workers’ movement — herd immunity is the most important.

“I am unsure whether it’s really necessary to maintain these restrictions. As noted, there are other brakes on transmission, such as the herd immunity and frequent testing, and for the residents’ mental well-being, we should aim to release as many of these restrictions as possible,” said Assoc Prof Cook.

Once fully vaccinated or recovered, dormitory residents can be subject to the same restrictions as others in the community who have been vaccinated, he added.

However, in an interview with media outlet BBC on Mar 14, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that half of foreign workers in dormitories are still vulnerable to infection. He said it will be too much of a risk for them to mix freely with the general population as COVID-19 is still circulating in Singapore.

"To have them living in a communal setting like this, and at the same time be able to mingle completely unrestrained with the rest of our population outside of the work setting, is risking going back to where we were," said PM Lee.

He added that he was mindful of the mental pressure of being cooped up, and that the Government is working out arrangements to ensure that they do not remain in their rooms all the time.

COMING SOON: MORE SPACE, BETTER LIVING

After COVID-19 threw into sharp relief the plight of migrant workers here, the authorities announced last June that it would take steps to improve their living standards in dormitories. 

The new dormitories to be built in the coming years will house up to 100,000 workers and have amenities such as minimarts, barber services and indoor recreation facilities. Blocks will be spaced out to ensure good ventilation while workers in these dormitories will have ready access to medical care. Existing dormitories will also be upgraded to meet the new standards.

READ: Workers who have recovered from COVID-19 exempted from rostered routine testing: MOH, MOM

All dormitories will be designed to be more resilient to public health risks, and have improved living standards benchmarked both domestically and internationally, said MOM in June last year.

The Government had already constructed seven Quick Build Dormitories last year to reduce the density of residents in current dormitories. A further eight are expected to be completed this year, with all 15 dormitories housing about 25,000 workers.

These dormitories, which are temporary structures meant to last for two to three years, will act as a testbed for new and improved standards in future dormitories.

For example, they will be roomier, providing 6 sqm or more per resident, excluding shared facilities. The number of residents will also be capped at 10 to reduce inter-mixing among residents.

Current laws require dormitories to provide at least 4.5 sqm, including shared facilities, for each resident. There is no cap on the number of residents.

Each room in a Quick Build Dormitory is also fitted with an ensuite toilet to minimise transmission risks from shared facilities. There will also be at least one toilet for every five residents, instead of the current 15 residents.

A resident rests in his shared room at a Quick Build Dormitory managed by Westlite Accommodation at Tuas Avenue 2. (Photo: TODAY/Raj Nadarajan)

“The principle basis is to de-densify all the rooms, to facilitate the segregation of residents, so that during a pandemic we can quickly impose lockdowns in a very targeted and precise manner,” explained Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng in Parliament earlier this month.

When TODAY visited the Quick Build Dormitory managed by Westlite Accommodation at Tuas Avenue 2 last week, it observed that each room in the dormitory has just five single-decked beds, with each bed situated 1m apart from each other. There is also an ensuite toilet in every room.

There are also two communal kitchens for every block of 60 to 80 residents, with staggered timings for residents to use them. Other communal facilities, such as the minimart and gym, also limit the number of residents who could enter at any one time.

Mr Mathiyalagan Alagarsamy, a foreign worker staying at the Tuas dormitory, said that he preferred the Quick Build Dormitory to previous dormitories he had stayed in as there was more space and safe-distancing between beds. This has reduced his fears of getting infected by COVID-19. 

His previous room at Toh Guan Dormitory, also managed by Westlite Accommodation, had 10 residents.

The 27-year-old, who is a maintenance worker with Westlite, said that while it may be inconvenient to follow all the rules and regulations, he knows that they are necessary for his own safety during the pandemic.

Mr Alagarsamy hopes that future dormitories would also be limited to five people to a room. He would also prefer dormitories to have ensuite kitchens to reduce the hassle of having to carry the food back to his room.

TURNING DORMITORIES INTO BETTER "HOMES"

The planned improvements on future dormitories will alter the way foreign workers live in a post-pandemic Singapore, said observers and industry players. 

Mr Johnathan Cheah, the managing director of S11 Dormitories, said that the new standards for dormitories will “really improve the landscape” and raise the standard of living for workers.   

READ: New task force set up to improve support for migrant workers' mental health

With the Government focused on making the living space in dormitories more spacious, there will be fewer occupants in each room and more communal facilities for residents. For example, instead of one large gym, there could be three smaller gyms for residents to use, said Mr Cheah.

With fewer residents using the same number of facilities, workers will better enjoy the facilities and see an improvement in their living space and conditions, he added.

Mr Kong Chee Min, chief executive officer of Centurion Corporation, which is the parent company of Westlite Accomodation, said that ensuite kitchens, toilets and showers will “make a difference” in future dormitories.

As these areas are used by residents daily, the risk of contact and contagion increases when a larger number of residents across different rooms use these amenities.

Having ensuite communal facilities will reduce the risk of contracting a virus through contact, said Mr Kong. Currently, not all dorms have such facilities. Some, including Westlite’s existing dormitories, already do. Mr Kong said that his company will continue building them in any future dorms. 

A resident at S11 @ Punggol cooking a meal at the communal kitchen. (Photo: TODAY/Raj Nadarajan)

Apart from the layout of rooms, Mr Kong said that the design of dormitory estates, as well as systems to manage the movement of foreign workers, will be important.

With the use of communal facilities resuming in dormitories, these aspects of a dormitory will allow operators to control the inter-mingling of residents between different blocks and rooms.

When asked if changes to Westlite’s current dormitories are adequate to meet the next wave of a similar pandemic, Mr Kong noted that the risk factor of pandemics lies not only in the number of residents in each room, but how they mingle across rooms, floors and blocks of dormitories.

“Whether there are five or 12 persons living in an apartment unit, if the residents of apartment units freely socialise or mingle with residents of other units or blocks within the dormitory, there will be wide-scale contact risks,” he said.

As such, on top of other government measures, such as Rostered Routine Testing where workers are tested for COVID-19 every two weeks, Westlite has also implemented additional measures to reduce the risk of potential transmission, he added.

This includes segregating residents of each dormitory into smaller sub-communities, or “bubbles” of about 100 to 150 residents, to reduce contact and the risk of spread to smaller numbers of residents. Each bubble has dedicated walking paths to ensure that residents remain segregated from other bubbles.

READ: COVID-19: Battling fear and boredom, migrant workers grapple with isolation in dormitories

Westlite has also developed and invested in physical installations and technology applications to manage the movement of residents and restrict inter-mixing between these segregated bubbles, said Mr Kong.

For example, it has introduced QR code-activated electromagnetic (EM) locks to the entrances of every floor in the existing dormitories to keep residents from different floors and blocks from mixing during the pandemic. These locks will also be included in future dormitories to reduce inter-mixing among residents, said Mr Kong.

However, Mr Cheah of S11 cautioned that changes to dormitories will not guarantee that they are resistant to future pandemics.

“Frankly, I don’t think a change in hardware will simply future-proof dormitories to pandemics because future pandemics can exist in different forms, spread in a different way and affect humans differently,” he said.

Mr Cheah, who is also the president of the Dormitory Association of Singapore, said that there should also be a focus on changing the habits of dormitory residents so that they are more conscious about issues such as hygiene and social distancing.

Facial recognition technology is used at the entrance of a Quick Build Dormitory managed by Westlite Accommodation at Tuas Avenue 2. (Photo: TODAY/Raj Nadarajan)

WHO’S FOOTING THE BILL?

Better dormitories and living conditions for foreign workers will come at a cost, with consumers and taxpayers ultimately having to foot the bill, said industry players.

For one, more space for each worker means the cost will naturally go up, much like buying a higher-priced four-room Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat instead of a three-room flat, said Mr Cheah.

He estimated that dormitories based on new standards set by the Government would cost about S$50 to S$100 more per person monthly, up from the current market price range of S$280 to S$350.

The increase is necessary as dormitory operators will need to recover the cost of constructing new dorms or retrofitting existing ones. They will also need to hike up rents to make a profit from rentals, said Mr Cheah.

The estimated increase includes extra maintenance costs related to safe-living measures, which Mr Cheah said could come up to about S$40 a month. The extra costs would cover, among other things, the hiring of security personnel to do additional duties such as  temperature screening, said Mr Cheah.

Employers of foreign workers said that they will factor the price increase of dormitories into future contracts.

“So let’s say in another six months, the prices of dormitory rental go up, then we must be careful to price tenders accordingly due to the higher overheads at that time,” said Mr Nelson Tee, managing director of CHH Construction System.

When asked if there is any way to cut costs in other areas such that contract prices do not go up, Mr Tee said: “I don’t know what to cut. We are running very thin on everything now.”

READ: COVID-19: Crowding, emotional health of migrant workers at dormitories concern employers

He said that the construction sector is currently “bleeding” due to a rise in material and labour costs. The sector will eventually have to find a way to increase its productivity, but certain overheads, such as perks for staff, may be cut to keep contract costs low, he added.

Speaking during his ministry’s budget debate in March, Dr Tan, the Second Minister for Manpower, said that the Government recognises that employers and dormitory operators may have to bear higher costs for dormitories in future.

“Many businesses would have locked in their costs in their existing projects and will now need time to adjust to higher migrant worker housing costs.

“Dormitory operators may also be more cautious in bidding to build and own new dormitories, given the current uncertain demand for migrant worker housing, alongside with the evolving COVID-19 situation,” he said.

Hence, the Government is studying the possibility of developing upcoming purpose-built dormitories on a different operating model, said Dr Tan.

Under the current system, land is released for commercial operators to bid, build and operate the dormitories.

One such new model, which has been floated by the authorities, is the “build, own and lease model” where the Government builds the dormitory. A separate entity, such as a private company or non-governmental organisation, can then lease and operate it, said Mr Wong, the Education Minister and task force co-chair, in June last year.

READ: COVID-19: New migrant worker dorms step in the right direction, say support groups - but could more be done?

This model has been piloted with Quick Build Dormitories. For instance, the Quick Build Dormitory at Tuas Avenue 2 is developed by JTC Corporation and leased and managed by Westlite Accommodation.

Mr Cheah said that such a model will put the Government in a better position to make changes to dormitories if it needs to, such as during another pandemic.

The Government can also fix the rental rates of dormitory rooms when it requests for tenders, said Mr Cheah.

However, this may make it harder for dormitory operators to make a profit as it will have to work around the budget set by the Government.

With this model, entities running the dormitories will also adopt the role of a managing agent who ensures that the property is well kept and residents are looked after. This means that managing agents from other industries which handle residents, such as hotel operators, may also want to enter the market, increasing the competition for existing dormitory operators, said Mr Cheah.

Mr Cheah felt that the current model is still the best as the operator has a vested interest in the asset, having spent money to acquire the land and construct the dormitory.

“So naturally, they will want to ensure that the dormitory is operated properly. Laws such as FEDA will help make sure that dormitories comply with regulations,” said Mr Cheah, referring to the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act which regulates among other things, the provision of facilities and services, health and safety in dormitories housing 1,000 or more residents.

Regardless of which model is finally adopted, one thing is certain: There can be no return to the status quo ante — many people in Singapore had spoken out on behalf of the foreign workers, who have helped to keep the city-state humming all these years.

In the meantime, foreign workers are waiting for the day they can go out and about as they used to.

Said Mr Miraz: “It’s my prayer that I don’t want to see anymore COVID-19 in Singapore. This is good for us, the workers, and Singaporeans. We just don’t want to see any more cases and hopefully, the Government will let us go out,” said Mr Miraz.

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Source: CNA/lk

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