Foreign worker movements must stay restricted as residual cases from dorms still a concern: Lawrence Wong

SINGAPORE — The movements of migrant workers outside their dormitories will remain restricted for as long as residual cases from the dorm clusters remain a concern, said Education Minister Lawrence Wong on Thursday (6 August).

“After clearing such a high viral load environment, where the dormitory clusters are, we often find that there are residual cases, even continuing for weeks. Remember, this was the case for the construction workers in the community. We had tested them, we cleared them,” said Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry taskforce on COVID-19.

“But even as we subject them to regular testing, we still see quite a number of workers testing positive, despite them serving 28 days of isolation, nearly one month. But after that, when we test them we still pick up positive cases.”

Wong was responding to Yahoo News Singapore’s query at a virtual press conference on whether the workers might be allowed to leave their dorms for recreational activities, especially as all foreign worker dorms will be cleared of the coronavirus by Friday, save for 17 standalone blocks in eight purpose-built dormitories that serve as quarantine facilities.

These blocks presently house some 9,700 workers who are still serving out their isolation period.

Since 21 April, more than 300,00 migrant workers have been living under restricted conditions at purpose-built dormitories and factory-converted dormitories, in a bid to control the spread of the coronavirus.

Wong noted, “Even when the workers are within the dormitories, it's not as though there is no provision for them to come down, have some opportunity to go out of their rooms.”

And once there is assurance that the testing process is completed and the workers are free from the virus, they will be allowed to go out to recreational centers and the community at large, in stages. “We will plan and stage that, step by step, to ensure that this is done in a safe manner for the workers themselves, and also for the community at large.”

Mental health of workers

Earlier in the press conference, director of medical services Kenneth Mak was asked about a recent spate of suicide attempts by workers residing in dorms. The most recent incident involved a worker allegedly slitting his throat on the morning of 2 August at a dormitory in Sungei Kadut.

In another incident on 31 July, dramatic footage also emerged of a worker standing on the 8th floor ledge of a block at The Leo, a dormitory in Kaki Bukit. The 27-year-old man was eventually pulled to safety. Both workers were apprehended under the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act.

Migrant workers and non-governmental organisations told Yahoo News Singapore that there has been an uptick in stress and anxiety levels among those residing in the dorms as the prolonged effects of isolation and financial, family and employment worries take their toll. There have been multiple reports of physical and verbal altercations, as well as self-harm and suicide ideation.

Associate Professor Mak conceded that a “prolonged period of isolation” would have potentially adverse effects on any individual, not just migrant workers. He noted that the Inter-Agency Task Force, which works to manage the situation in the dorms, has a workgroup looking specifically at mental health issues, working with counsellors, social workers, psychiatrists and psychologists.

“They've taken pains to help the migrant workers to celebrate holidays, to make their stay within the locked down dormitories as meaningful as as possible, albeit within the lockdown regime that they are in. They've also offered help through a variety of ways with an opportunity for them to call in hotlines for help. There are staff that come down and encourage workers to step forward, if necessary for counselling.”

Acknowledging that these efforts are a work in progress, Assoc Prof Mak added, “The taskforce is committed to making sure that the mental health needs of the migrant workers are looked into, supported, not just now but as a sustainable framework that would continue in the dormitories even after the outbreak comes under control within the dormitories.”

On 5 June, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo told Parliament that the Ministry of Manpower partners with NGOs such as the Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC) and Healthserve to meet the mental well-being of migrant workers. Additionally, FAST teams and MWC’s network of 5,000 ambassadors proactively look out for residents who may need help and refer them to a mental health counsellor.

Workers can also call the MWC’s 24-hour helpline for assistance on any issues or a listening ear. And in April, Healthserve launched a dedicated mental wellness hotline where workers can access important medical information and submit requests for tele-counselling sessions in their native languages.

If you know of migrant workers in distress or in need of assistance, they can call the following helplines:

Healthserve: 31384443 (WhatsApp or call)

Migrant Workers’ Centre: 6536-2692

Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444

Institute of Mental Health’s Mobile Crisis Service: 6389-2222

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