Singapore moves to address cramped migrant worker conditions

Singapore's National Development Minister Lawrence Wong Photo: Nitroacid. / CC BY-SA

The Singapore government is planning to reduce crowding and trying to improve conditions for migrant workers, as COVID-19 cases in worker dormitories now account for over 90% of infections in the country.


The Singapore government has announced plans to adopt new rules to improve migrant workers’ living standards and to build new housing for migrant workers to reduce crowding. Concern for the living conditions of migrant workers in the city state has grown dramatically during the coronavirus pandemic, as migrant workers account for more than 90% of local COVID-19 cases.

In mid-March, Singapore had just 200 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and the country saw global kudos for successfully containing the pandemic. But in early April, the disease began to spread through the city’s densely-packed migrant housing—workers, many from Bangladesh, China and India, live 12-20 people to a room. Domestic law requires each worker to be given 4.5 square metres of living space.

As testing and infections increased, the government declared over 20 dormitories to be “isolation areas” under the country’s Infectious Disease Act. On April 21, all dormitories were placed on lockdown, with workers told they would not be allowed in or out until May 4—the lockdown was later extended to June 1.

Singapore’s privately-run migrant worker dormitories house just over 300,000 of the country’s approximately 1.4 million foreign workers. Over 30,000 living in dormitories have now tested positive for the coronavirus, with infection rates at 15% or higher in some areas. 

New plan adds housing, may improve conditions

The new dormitories could house as many as 100,000 migrant workers within the next two years, with the new facilities built to allow for better hygiene and more space per worker. The first wave of new housing, to be completed by the end of 2020, will have a maximum of 10 beds per room, all of them single-deck, rather than bunked. Only five workers will share toilet facilities, compared with the current standard of 15.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said in an online press conference that the new programme is designed to make the dormitories “more resilient to public health risks.” The plan will reportedly reduce the risk of future outbreaks of disease and allow authorities to respond to them more quickly.

The government is also rolling out short-term measures to reduce crowding, working with dormitory companies to convert army camps, sports venues and vacant housing as well as to build new “quick build” temporary dormitories.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said the new program also offers a chance for the government to improve standards for the workers’ living conditions. In addition to building new housing, the government is also working to make sure more migrant worker dormitories comply with existing laws—an issue which affects living conditions and may have played a role in the spread of infections.

Workers’ rights advocates, including local group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), have been asking the government to improve conditions and employer compliance for years.

The surge in infections among migrant workers has also drawn criticism of the government’s unequal treatment of COVID-19 cases, including in-depth critiques of the country’s race and immigration politics. Migrant workers in Singapore face significant prejudice and are in many ways excluded from Singapore’s society.

Groups like the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) point to the ongoing need for structural changes to give workers fair wages, equal treatment and protections from exploitation—some workers earn as little as S$400 (US$285) per month. As the migrant workers went into lockdown in April, some in the country described workers and the rest of the city as living in “parallel universes.”

Singapore’s economic growth, as in many developed countries, depends on low-wage workers taking jobs that most citizens won’t: as construction workers, shipyard labourers, cleaners, domestic workers and other positions.

Wong said that some of the new dormitories will likely be built near existing residential areas and asked people to “do their part” by rejecting the “not-in-my-backyard mindset” as far as migrant worker housing.

“We really need to appreciate the contributions of all that our migrant workers have been doing and will continue to do and build in Singapore and welcome them as part of our community,” said Wong. “And this is an important part of how we can also learn from this whole experience and become a more inclusive society.”

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