SINGAPORE: There were “shortcomings by all parties” on the ground surrounding the incident at the Westlite Jalan Tukang migrant worker dormitory on Oct 13, said Senior Minister of State for Manpower Koh Poh Koon in Parliament on Monday (Nov 1).
This comes after the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) investigated claims about breaches of COVID-19 health protocols, a lack of access to medical support and poor quality of catered food at the dormitory.
Disgruntled workers had shared photos of insects and hair they found in their food through an online article on Weixin. Some workers quoted in the article also said they slept on the ground outside their rooms to avoid infecting those they shared a room with, and had to wait a long time before receiving medical attention.
On the afternoon of Oct 13, there was a heavy security presence at the dormitory, with Special Operations Command vehicles and several other armoured police vehicles parked along the road outside.
Dozens of police officers were in protective gear, along with other officers in red berets.
Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan, who also spoke in Parliament on Monday, said police were deployed to the dorm following information that a group of workers had been “behaving aggressively, with potential for violence”.
Dr Koh described the series of events that led up to the Ministry of Manpower’s investigation of claims about COVID-19 health breaches at the dormitory that day.
“In summary, there were shortcomings by all parties. On the employer’s part, workers were upset and had raised issues about food quality and hygiene,” he said, addressing eight Members of Parliament who had filed questions on the matter.
“On the dormitory operator’s part, they struggled to cope with the surge in numbers. On ACE’s (Assurance, Care and Engagement Group) part, we stepped in but did not put in sufficient resources in time to resolve the problem.”
There are about 3,000 residents at the dormitory - about half of them are employed by Sembcorp Marine and almost all of them are workers from China who arrived in the last three to four months, said Dr Koh.
The workers were vaccinated in their home country before arriving in Singapore, and their vaccination status needed to be verified to be registered as vaccinated in Singapore, he noted.
“MOM has been working with the employer to expedite the verification, and progress has been made,” he said, adding that about 60 per cent of the Sembcorp Marine workers have been verified to have received World Health Organization (WHO) Emergency Use List vaccines.
“A number” of workers were not vaccinated with WHO Emergency Use List vaccines, and they are encouraged to be vaccinated in Singapore “for their own protection”, said the Senior Minister of State.
After MOM implemented the Dormitory Recovery Program from Oct 2, dormitory operator Centurion Corporation “began adjusting to these new protocols”.
Under the new programme, COVID-19 positive vaccinated workers who are asymptomatic or with only mild symptoms can be monitored in separate dormitory recovery facilities within dormitory compounds. Forty-five larger dormitories have dedicated blocks or rooms set aside for this.
There are also three centralised recovery facilities in the larger dormitories to cater for workers who do not have access to the facilities in the 45 dormitories.
This comes to a total of 11,000 recovery beds, and MOM will expand these recovery capacities if needed, said Dr Koh.
On Oct 10, there were 174 new cases of COVID-19 detected in polymerase chain reaction and antigen rapid tests at the dormitory, he added.
“However, the dormitory operator had difficulty processing the sudden surge of workers that needed to be conveyed.”
The next day, some “key members” of dormitory staff did not come to work as they had also tested positive for the virus, said Dr Koh, adding that the ACE officers on the ground “stepped in” to assist the operator.
In response to the sharp spike in cases, SembCorp Marine and ACE carried out a mass testing exercise on Oct 12 at the worksite and dormitory, which found another 278 cases.
These workers needed to be conveyed from the dormitory to a centralised recovery facility if they were vaccinated, or to an appropriate isolation facility if they were unvaccinated.
“This happened while the team was trying to process the previous surge, and the dormitory operator struggled to process the high volume,” Dr Koh said, recounting the series of events.
“While ACE officers tried to assist the operator between Oct 11 and 12, it too did not put in enough resources during this time to triage, process and convey the COVID-19 positive workers before the second surge on Oct 13.”
Following the Oct 13 incident, ACE took “swift actions” to stabilise the situation, he said.
“We doubled the number of officers to manage the conveyance of all infected workers from the dormitory,” said the Senior Minister of State.
“By the evening of Oct 13, about 70 per cent of the workers needing conveyance had been sent to the appropriate recovery or isolation facilities. By the next day on Oct 14, the backlog was cleared.”
ACE officers, the workers’ employer and the dormitory operator also engaged the workers and assured them that their feedback “would be looked into” and that there would be “timely conveyance” of those infected with COVID-19, said Dr Koh.
“The workers calmed down and returned to their rooms,” he added.
A mobile clinical team was deployed to the dormitory, and all workers who wanted medical attention were seen by the team on the same day, he said
“This helped to reduce the waiting time and allayed much of the fears and anxieties that the workers experienced. The situation has been calm in the dormitory since Oct 13,” he added.
On Oct 15, Sembcorp Marine also apologised to its 1,400 workers at the dormitory.
“The company has taken the caterer to task and has insisted on strict adherence to hygiene standards, as well as timeliness of the food delivery,” said the company at the time, in an update on the situation at the dorm.
“We take this very seriously and have asked the employer to address the complaints. The employer has reported that they have made improvements to the food and the feedback from workers has been positive,” said Dr Koh on Monday.
“The Ministry will not hesitate to take actions against any errant employers who fail to ensure workers’ access to safe food,” he said, noting that the Singapore Food Agency is also investigating the food safety practices of the caterer.
Over the last two weeks, ACE has introduced more videos and infographics to “better explain” Singapore’s COVID-19 strategy and the recovery process in dormitories, said Dr Koh.
The newly arrived workers at the dormitory were "used to a different COVID-19 management strategy" in their home country, he added.
“I urge employers and dormitory operators to do more to help our workers adjust to the new normal, communicate changes that will affect workers’ well-being and actively address potential knowledge gaps of their workers and residents,” said Dr Koh.
He also urged workers who are not vaccinated or not verified after getting vaccinated overseas to complete these as soon as possible.
Dr Koh thanked those who supported the workers after the Oct 13 incident, including the Chinese business community, the Chinese Embassy, and non-governmental organisations like HealthServe and the Migrant Workers’ Centre.
“This is testimony to the civic-mindedness and big-heartedness of our community here in Singapore. Thank you so much for your help.
"This is similar to how at the height of the pandemic last year, MOM worked with the High Commission of India and the Bangladesh High Commission, as well as various NGOs to support our migrant workers, including celebrating festive occasions with them,” he added.
“We thank all parties for their contributions and donations, and we will continue to work together to care for our migrant workers.”
Following the incident, all parties have “diligently addressed the issues” and restored calm to the dormitory and workers, said Dr Koh.
“We have also conducted a thorough review and tightened up the processes, especially for escalating and calling in more resources to deal with a surge in cases that need to be conveyed,” he added.
“ACE has also tightened up coordination and communication with dormitory operators and employers when handling mass testing exercises and a surge in cases. Investigations into failures to fulfil regulatory obligations, for example in food safety and hygiene issues are ongoing.”
Noting that all partners across the more than 1,300 dormitories in Singapore play “important roles” in the recovery of migrant workers from COVID-19, Dr Koh said more than 17,000 workers have recovered under the dormitory recovery program.
“We will learn from this episode, continue to strengthen the partnership with all stakeholders and community partners to ensure the well-being of our migrant workers as we transit to endemicity.”