By Philip Heijmans
(Bloomberg) — It’s been a year since migrant workers in Singapore were confined to dormitories to prevent an outbreak of Covid-19 in their ranks from spreading across the island. Now, weeks after new cases among the labourers dropped to almost zero and thousands have received vaccinations, some wonder how long it will take for restrictions to end.
“I don’t have any freedom to move around, only allowed to leave from the dorm to worksite, dorm to worksite,” said Arif, a 30-year-old worker from Bangladesh who’s been living in housing on the same construction site since the pandemic began. “Right now my only feeling is I want to go home to see my family, but I haven’t got the vaccination. I worry if I go home, I cannot come back.”
The 320,000 migrant workers living in dormitories who help build and service the city came into the spotlight last year as Covid-19 raged through their packed buildings, threatening to wreck the nation’s efforts to control the virus. The news turned a spotlight on their living and working conditions, which some labor organisations had been warning about for years. With a vaccine drive now in full swing, most dormitory residents remain largely segregated from the rest of the population, with permission for only limited trips away from their workplace or living quarters.
Like others who form the poorest and least advantaged parts of society around the world, the migrants in Singapore bore the brunt of the pandemic. Yet, once the government woke up to the mass infections sweeping the cramped dormitories, it moved rapidly to quell the spread of the disease and safeguard the health of the workers, giving them a better chance of surviving the virus, while trying to ensure they continued to get paid. Last year, it announced 11 new dorms would be built that would limit occupancy to 10 single beds per room.
While workers Bloomberg spoke to said they are glad of the medical support they get, their lives remain a far cry from that of most other residents in Singapore, who are able to shop, dine out, visit friends and even take cruises and attend concerts, with the virus all but eliminated locally. Human rights groups say the government should allow the workers similar freedom of movement and that long-term lessons should be learned from the pandemic about the need to provide better safeguards and conditions for migrant labor, especially in wealthy Singapore.
“The restriction is unfair: If the non-migrant worker community is almost back to normal life, why can’t the workers be treated the same?” said Luke Tan, operations manager at the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics, a local charity that works with the dorm residents. “Building and improving dorms is very superficial. It does not begin to scratch the surface of the structural vulnerabilities migrant workers face.”
But the shock of discovering so many Covid cases in dormitories a year ago has made the government super cautious. It reacted initially to the outbreaks with a quarantine lasting months, followed by strict testing and surveillance as the migrants returned to work.
The measures succeeded. Fewer than 20 new cases have been found in the dormitories since Nov. 1, a lower tally than in the wider community. Yet the government has been hesitant to relax restrictions. Apart from controlled visits to a recreation facility up to three times a week, most are still unable to go out. They’re only able to mix with the wider community on “essential errands” after putting in a request to the government.
The majority of the workers are employed in the marine, construction or processing sectors and the government is concerned that, until vaccination is widespread, dormitories remain potential sites for a fresh outbreak. The nation’s migrants account for almost 90% of the 60,000 total coronavirus cases confirmed in the country since the pandemic began.
“One single case can easily spread to many other workers,” Lawrence Wong, the education minister who co-chairs the virus taskforce, said when asked about easing restrictions at the dorms during a press briefing on March 24. “We are taking a more cautious approach.” He said more easing of restrictions would be coming soon.
The Ministry of Manpower said it is “drawing up plans to allow eligible foreign employees to visit the community once a month.”
At the heart of the debate is access to vaccines. The ministry said it began vaccinating dorm-bound workers in March who hadn’t previously tested positive for Covid, giving a first dose to about 9,000. It’s now extending the rollout to another 30,000 migrants as part of a second phase. The government said in parliament in February that the migrant workers were considered a priority group for vaccinations.
“Bigger dorms that house more than 1,000 people or so get preference for injections. Our has about 100 people, so we will have to wait,” said 34-year-old Indian construction worker Arumugam. “Still, we have nothing to worry about as we have 24x7 medical help.”
The government has to balance the need to inoculate the workers to reduce the risk of further outbreaks with the need to ensure the nation’s supplies of shots are also being rolled out for its citizens. The vaccine drive may be key to persuading the government to relax restrictions on movement.
“They should be allowed to come out,” Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases physician at Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth Hospital, said on April 9. “The dormitory situation is controlled. We could start with those fully vaccinated.” He acknowledges that such a move carries risks, because no Covid-19 vaccine is 100% effective.
As in other rich nations that rely on imported cheap labor, Singapore’s migrant workers have always lived with more restrictions than citizens and white-collar expats. But the attraction of jobs and higher wages unavailable in their home countries causes them to endure long stretches away from home in sometimes harsh conditions in the hope of a better life. The government required that companies continue to pay workers wages, even during lockdown, and has provided some support for employers as part of its pandemic stimulus packages.
“The workers we’ve seen are all in positive spirits,” said Dipa Swaminathan, founder of It’s Raining Raincoats, a local volunteer group that workers with migrants. “These guys are able to go to work, they’re able to get their monthly income, they’re able to send it back.”
While workers are frustrated about restrictions on where they can go and who they can meet, those that spoke to Bloomberg were mostly satisfied with the government response to the dormitory outbreaks. In December, the government said that there had been only two deaths attributed to the disease among those in dormitories.
“I’ve been getting paid my basic wages for all these months as if I have been working from 8-5,” said construction worker Arumugam, who has worked in Singapore for 15 years. “The government even ordered my company to provide for our food expenses. We have been given access to WIFI, regular health checkups, and even a facility to transfer money back home from our dorm.”
But as the months of restrictions continue, the cost to businesses and workers’ wellbeing is taking its toll.
“In the long run, the government will allow the migrant workers back into the community — the cost and burden on the employers of exercising near-total control over workers’ movements is unsustainable,” said Tan.
In the meantime, labourers such as Arumugam are resigned to their plight. “We didn’t have a great social life before the lockdown and we don’t have one now,” he said.
© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.