SINGAPORE: Singapore’s move to lock down thousands of foreign workers has put a spotlight on their cramped and unhygienic dormitories, prompting rights groups to voice concerns that the substandard conditions endanger both their inhabitants and the broader community.
As the city-state fights to halt the spread of the coronavirus, nearly 20,000 migrant laborers, mostly from the construction industry, have been quarantined since Tuesday at two dormitories affected by the virus outbreak, according to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).
“MOM will assist the operators of S11 Dormitory @ Punggol as well as Westlite Toh Guan Dormitory to look after the well-being of their residents, such as ensuring that they get a timely supply of catered meals, and the premises are kept clean,” the ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
Another dorm, Toh Guan Dormitory at Toh Guan Road East, which houses 4,500 workers, has been under quarantine since Monday.
An inter-agency task force with personnel from the Ministry of Health, National Environment Agency, Singapore Armed Forces, the Singapore Police Force and Migrant Workers’ Center has been set up to provide health care and food to the migrant laborers.
The dormitories have been a source of concern due to the large number of people they house, poor hygiene and the impossibility of imposing social distancing.
Singaporean nongovernmental organization, the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME), which provides services to migrant workers, said that keeping them in such living conditions created systemic vulnerabilities that “endanger the workers and the broader community.”
“Mega dorms house tens of thousands of workers. At any one time, residents have to share facilities e.g. toilets and eating areas with dozens of people ... the space per resident means safe physical distancing is extremely difficult,” HOME said in a statement.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told Arab News that it was time Singapore treated migrant workers with dignity and respect. He said that it should start with providing decent and safe accommodation for the workers that “don’t pack people like peas in a pod under conditions that make these people the first victims in an epidemic.”
“The Singaporean authorities can’t just wall off behind a quarantine line. Locking down a dormitory and waiting for people to call if they feel sick is neither adequate nor humane,” he said.
Sreyashi Sen, a Singapore-based counselor on migrant workers, told Arab News that although the migrant workers’ living conditions are better than in other countries, their dorms were cramped.
“From my observation, each dorm would have three bunk beds in one room that fits at least six people,” she said.
While hailing the government’s quarantine move as “circuit-breaker measures,” she said that the workers had been cooperative due to their low status in the country.
“The workers adhere more to rules and laws compared with expatriates in Singapore. They are at the lowest rung in the societal pyramid, so their fear of deportation is high,” Sen said.