Migrant workers bear brunt of Singapore's COVID-19 'second wave'

Low-paid migrant workers in Singapore are living in poorly serviced and crowded conditions. Photo: Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics

Singapore was one of the countries that acted early to suppress the outbreak of COVID-19. This seemed to pay off — at first. Despite being a major hub for global travel and trade, its numbers of infections and deaths were kept right down until early April. However, the virus found the city-state's weak underbelly: about 300,000 lowly-paid migrant workers living in crowded dormitories.

By April 5, there were 145 COVID-19 cases detected among these migrant workers. A week later, it had grown to 787 and by April 30, it had blown up to 13,842. From a tiny fraction of the total cases in Singapore, infections among this workforce had grown to 85.6% of total cases in just a few weeks.

Luke Tan, casework manager at Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), one of a few NGOs working for migrant worker rights, had warned that the living conditions of migrant workers housed in crowded dormitories “create a perfect storm for massive rapid infection”.

Alex Au, vice-president of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), another group campaigning for migrant worker rights in Singapore, told Green Left that there are up to 300,000 low-paid migrant workers living in such dangerous conditions.

“These workers are mostly in the construction or construction-related industries and shipbuilding," he said. "Some of them live in converted warehouses and shipping containers and about 200,000 are in 43 huge purpose-built dorms.

“These are privately owned but licensed dormitories, built like internment camps, surrounded with barbwire fences and security cameras, so they can be quickly locked down.

“The workers live in groups of 12–20 in poorly ventilated rooms. TWC2 has been saying for a long time that this accommodation is unacceptable and a health risk. Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, these are not safe places, social distancing is impossible and we need to move these workers out of them.”

On April 3, the Singapore government locked down two of the dormitories, the S11 Dormitory (13,000 residents) and the Westlite Toh Guan (6,800 residents). Police and Ministry of Manpower (MOM) officials were stationed at their gates.

This was followed by the imposition of a more general lockdown named “Circuit Breaker”, from April 7, which closed all non-essential workplaces, schools, recreational facilities and places of worship until May 4, to minimise interactions and reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Then, one after another, migrant worker dorms were gazetted for isolation, while about 7000 workers were moved from the dorms to military camps, floating hotels and vacant Housing Development Board (HDB) units.

The Singapore authorities assured the broader population that it was safe and that the migrant workers from the dorms were being well looked after. Most of them were young and, therefore, only a minority of those infected would require intensive medical care.

However, the feeling inside the dorms was very different. Au told GL: “It is true that the foreign workers are from a younger demographic, but they are also under severe stress. For years there has been a nutrition problem with foreign workers. They have been getting rather bad diets but now they are also worried about [not] getting paid and about being confined to their dorms. They are feeling trapped and abandoned.

“They are being kept in a room for up to 22 hours a day. One worker asked ‘What are we doing here? We are just waiting for the virus to come and take us’.”

Case 42

The first confirmed COVID-19 infection in a workers’ dormitory is officially termed “Case 42”, a 39-year-old Bangladeshi labourer on a major construction site. The source of his infection is classed as “local transmission” (in other words, it was not from overseas).

In early February, Case 42 fell ill and visited a clinic and then a hospital for help, only to be sent home each time. His “home” was a dormitory where men sleep about 10 to a room, sharing toilets and cooking facilities. He also visited a 24-hour shopping mall, popular with migrant workers and locals alike. It wasn’t until February 7 that he was admitted to hospital and, a day later, tested positive for the virus.

He subsequently became very ill, had to be ventilated and kept in an intensive care unit. He is still being treated for post-COVID-19 complications.

Au said any suggestion the outbreak of COVID-19 among the migrant workers in the dorms is separate to that in the broader Singaporean community is misplaced. These workers are part of the community, he added, although the Ministry of Health records their infections under a separate category.

“While there isn't a lot of interaction in some industry sectors, for example, in shipyards where work crews are almost entirely foreign, there are other sectors, for example, sanitation, small construction projects, transport and logistics, where migrant workers will often come into contact with Singaporeans,” Au said.

In addition to the workers living in dormitories, there are about 220,000 foreign domestic workers (housekeepers, etc.) living in the homes of Singaporeans and well-paid “expats”. A further 500,000 migrant workers live in private rental accomodation in the general community.

Most of the cleaners and security guards in the large high-rise housing estates, where most Singaporeans live, are migrant workers, as are many cooks and shop-front staff in the retail and hospitality sectors.

Many migrant workers play critical roles in essential industries. Some of these workers live in the dormitories. In fact, explained Au, their cheap labour underpins Singapore's entire neoliberal economic model.

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Migrant worker dorm Singapore
Migrant worker dormitory in Singapore.

Modern day 'coolie' labour

These low-paid migrant workers are a form of indentured labour from poor countries, just as were the ancestors of many Singaporeans, who came as “coolie labour” from China more than a century ago.

Migrant worker and poet Ramasamy Madhavan, 29, recently launched a short film on YouTube called $alary Day. He told GL he felt pressed to tell people what it was like for the poorly-paid migrant labourers who “carry the burden” in Singapore and many other countries.

"These migrant workers spend little money on themselves. If a worker earns S$18 per day for a month, with five public holidays, he earns only S$450. If they get overtime, they can manage a bit better.

"Migrant workers from India have typically outlaid $8000–$10,000 each on acquiring certificates and labour agency fees to get a job in Singapore. Workers from Bangladesh pay even more. They spend at least two years working to pay back this debt.

“The families of some of these migrant workers sell their farmland at home to pay off this debt.”

Madhavan holds an S Pass, which allows mid-level skilled staff to work in Singapore. He is better off than the Work Permit holders, most of whom earn just 10% of the median income in Singapore.

Another migrant worker, Zakir Hossain Khokan, who helped Madhavan with the film, is currently in hospital recovering from COVID-19. After he graduated from university in Bangladesh, he borrowed S$10,000 to work in Singapore. The job turned out to be as a cleaner in a HDB block.

Zakir, a poet and a key figure in Migrant Writers of Singapore (MWS), now has a better job, but still lives in one of the purpose-built dormitories. He was active in educating fellow residents about the dangers of COVID-19, distributing face masks and other items, before he got infected. He told his story on a recent podcast recorded by phone from his hospital bed by New Naratif.

“There is a joke among migrant workers in the dorms,” he said pointedly in the podcast. “It is called social distancing!”

Michelle Sim Jia En, a Singaporean journalist and volunteer with MWS, related the story of Zakir's infection in an article published in the Chinese-language publication Zaobao.

On April 14, one person living in his neighbouring room became infected. Zakir and his roommates were very careful during those days, sending only one friend to help bring lunch boxes for the whole room, to prevent unnecessary contact with people outside.

On the night of April 15, Sim rang Zakir and asked him how he was. He calmly said, “I'm in the corridor counting how many ambulances came today. I have a roommate who has a fever, and the ambulance came to get him.”

On April 16, Zakir said that two of his roommates cried an entire night because a roommate had tested positive. The next morning, Zakir was also diagnosed as positive for COVID-19.

Government action 'reactive not preventative'

HOME executive director Catherine James explained to GL that the Singaporean government had been warned by NGOs working with the migrant workers of the dangers of an outbreak.

“TWC2 had published a letter in The Straits Times Forum section in March warning about the risk of infections in the dormitories.

“HOME had also previously issued its comments on the inadequacy of dormitory space and its associated living conditions, at the time that the Foreign Employees Dormitories Act (FEDA) was being passed in 2015.

“But the government's responses have largely been reactive, rather than preventive.

“Apart from workers providing essential services [who have been moved to special, lower-density housing], little has been done to reduce the density of the number of men living in the dormitories, to allow for safe distancing. Overcrowding remains a concern.

“The government has not fully exhausted all options of re-housing them to other locations. It has revealed big gaps in enforcement of rules in these mega dorms and irregularity of inspections, some of which are managed by conglomerates.

“It was only in March this year when we saw the first company get convicted under FEDA, after inspections revealed that [their dorms] were filthy and unacceptable.”

Au said the MOM has a longstanding policy of leaving the treatment and control of migrant workers to their employers and the various companies that run the dormitories.

“There is no minimum wage and the continuation of a migrant worker’s job is entirely in the hands of their employers, who effectively issue their work permits,” Au said. “So there is a massive imbalance of power that keeps these workers low-paid and permanently insecure.

“Since the pandemic, the migrant workers have become even more insecure and worried. Some have not been paid since February and they do not know if they will have a job.”

The bottom of a long supply chain

Dr Stephanie Chok, who has extensively researched the conditions of Singapore's migrant workers, told GL that many of these workers, especially those in the construction industry, work for sub-contractors, who are in turn squeezed by giant development corporations.

There is often a supply chain with big developers: those at the top who sometimes boast about their ecological and social values; and the low-paid migrant workers at the bottom.

Complex chains of subcontracting provide layers and layers of deniability for the super-exploitation of the low-paid workers at the bottom. Migrant worker rights groups see an urgent need for the same sort of global activism that has slowly brought some major garment brands to account for their practices.

Jolovan Wham, a social worker and former executive director of HOME, told GL: “The years of neglecting the welfare of migrant workers is blowing up in their faces now. The way Singapore treats migrant workers was always a ticking time bomb.

“The reason we won't see much progress in workers' rights here is because they are not even allowed to form their own unions and associations. They cannot be empowered.

“When anyone's rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly are curtailed, progress will be slow, because they have been muted.

“History has shown that substantive progress only happens when the oppressed find a voice and can speak truth to power. Singaporeans like me can only be their allies. Relying on us to be the change is a very limited strategy and also a disempowering one for the workers.”

The alternative to empowerment of migrant workers could be nasty. It is common to see ugly and racist public comments on articles reporting on the plight of these workers.

Migrant workers are scapegoated for the rise in infections and blamed for being dirty. Their claims for better wages are dismissed, with the argument that it is more than they could earn in their home countries.

Some comments propose tighter isolation of migrant workers, bans on male dormitory-housed workers socialising with female domestic workers, and limits on interaction with the broader community.

Au said such a course of action is possible, “considering how Singapore treats migrant workers as a commodity without rights”.

“The inhumanity and abhorrence of any plan to move migrant workers from confined worksites to confined dorms, almost like prison work gangs, and ban leisure time from being spent outside their tiny, crammed rooms for months to come, in order to eliminate any contact with Singaporeans, is obvious,” he said.

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Migrant worker dorm Singapore
Crowded conditions inside a migrant worker dormitory in Singapore.

Calls for international solidarity

James Gomez, the regional director of the Bangkok-based Asia Centre, told GL that the problem extends to many other countries in the region where “the COVID-19 pandemic is showing up the difficulties faced by vulnerable communities, such as indigenous people, refugees, migrant workers and those working in the informal economy”.

His organisation had also warned there were new encroachments on the democratic space for such groups to speak out and organise, introduced in the name of combating the pandemic.

“Migrant workers may lose their jobs and not have jobs for an extended period, forcing a return to their home country," he said. "Others, who either cannot go back or remain in-country, will struggle for a livelihood as the neoliberal economies try a restart.”

TCW2's May Day 2020 statement summed up the urgent need for global solidarity:

“In the United States, Afro-Americans have suffered a disproportionate number of infections and deaths. In Britain, research indicates that the death rate among black and ethnic minority people is higher than for others.

“In Brazil, people living in the densely packed favelas of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo are angry that they are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 outbreak in infections and lost lives, from a disease introduced to the country by wealthy fellow citizens returning from abroad.

“In Qatar and Singapore, infection has spread rapidly among migrant workers living in crowded quarters.

“In most developed countries, low-waged migrant workers and minorities play a large role in delivering essential services, including healthcare, which has put them at increased risk of falling ill in the present pandemic.

“Around the world, the low paid have suffered higher rates of infection, often accompanied by a disproportionate loss of life, compared to other sectors of the population. They have faced greater exposure to infection at work and in their accommodation…

“Every year, May 1 is celebrated as a day of international solidarity among workers. Regardless of colour, religion or gender, this is a time to reaffirm the common aspiration of working people everywhere for a fairer world, in which all honest labour is respected and enjoys its just reward.

"On this May Day, we recognise that humanity has a common interest in overcoming the COVID-19 infection. We oppose any expression of prejudice based on nationality, which is unjustified and contrary to the spirit of cooperation for the greater good.”

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