COVID-19: Foreign worker dormitories to be 'effectively' in lockdown – Josephine Teo

Dhany Osman
·Editor
·4-min read

SINGAPORE — All foreign worker dormitories will soon be "effectively" on lockdown.

These include 43 purpose-built and close to 1,200 factory-converted dorms, which in total, house some 300,000 workers.

During a virtual press conference led by the COVID-19 multi-ministry taskforce on Tuesday (14 April), Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said that the authorities aim to apply the same safe distancing measures implemented in isolation areas to the remaining dorms.

As of Monday, eight dorms - all of which are clusters - have been gazetted as isolation areas, with the latest being Cochrane Lodge II. These and other dorms that have also been identified as clusters have been locked down. Workers in these dorms are quarantined and cannot leave their rooms for 14 days.

“While these (other) dorms are not presented as isolation areas, we aim to apply the same safe distancing measures so that they are effectively also on lockdown,” said Teo.

“Likewise, workers have to stay in the dormitories. Within the dormitories, we enforce strict safe distancing measures, which means no more cooking and freely mixing with friends from other housing units.”

Noting that not all the dormitories have clusters, Teo said, “29 of the 43 purpose-built dormitories, and almost all the factory-converted dormitories are like that. Here, we aim to prevent clusters from forming. All those tested positive and their close contacts would already have been isolated separately.”

Some 7,000 healthy workers who are providing essential services have already been moved out of the dormitories.

They have been, or will be, placed at various activated sites such as SAF military camps, the Changi Exhibition Centre, floating hotels, or floatels, that are typically used for offshore accommodation, as well as vacant Housing Board blocks in Tanjong Pagar and Jurong.

About 1,300 healthy workers will be progressively relocated in batches to three floating hotels berthed at Tanjong Pagar Terminal over the next few weeks. The first batch of 31 healthy workers have been moved to a floatel.

At least 19 clusters linked to foreign worker dormitories have been identified as of Monday night, including the largest cluster of 586 cases linked to S11 Dormitory@Punggol.

Those linked to S11 account for nearly half of the total 1,193 cases linked to clusters at foreign worker dorms and construction sites.

Separately, the Ministry of Health’s director of medical services Kenneth Mak said on Tuesday that there were another 334 new cases of COVID-19 infection in Singapore, taking the total to 3,252.

Dormitory facts and figures

The 43 purpose-built dormitories in Singapore house about 200,000 workers in total. Most facilities are able to house about 3,000 to 25,000 workers each.

“There was a very specific reason we built these dormitories. They were designed for communal living, where the workers could live together, socialise with their friends, prepare meals they liked, practice their religious beliefs... It’s a supportive environment for the workers,” said Teo.

In terms of living conditions, she described workers’ shared rooms as being about the size of half a badminton court accommodating five bunk beds, with “another 20 per cent for circulation space”.

Such dormitories are also managed by professional operators, which are regulated.

“Among other things, they have the responsibility to ensure modern sanitation and no over-crowding,” said Teo.

Around 1,200 factory-converted dormitories across the island house about 95,000 workers. These facilities tend to be smaller and house about 50 to 100 workers each, although some can take in around 500.

These dormitories may be operated by the employers themselves or by professional firms, and are also regulated to ensure they meet standards for space, hygiene, and fire safety among others.

Lastly, there are also temporary quarters that “generally do not house more than 40 workers each”, said Teo, who added that these facilities are regularly inspected.

Why the spread?

In its initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) first progressively limited the inflow of workers to minimise the risk of imported cases.

“We reached out to dormitory operators to be more vigilant. Materials were produced in the workers’ native languages to encourage them to also take steps to protect themselves,” said Teo.

She added that non-essential facilities like gyms and TV rooms were then closed; mealtimes and recreational hours staggered; and intermixing between dormitory blocks was also stopped.

“Why then has there been such a spread among workers in dormitories?” she asked.

Teo said that epidemiological findings showed that infected dormitory residents are linked through common work sites and through socialising on rest days. The workers are also likely to have mingled with one another within the dormitories as well.

“Despite the safe distancing measures in place then, the virus spread in the dormitories through these socialising activities, much like how it would spread among housemates, friends and the community,” said Teo.

“This may explain why up to mid-March, the cases of dorm workers testing positive were few and far between.”

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