COVID-19 Op-ed

Dormitory Debate: Have migrant workers in Singapore slipped between the cracks?

Written by admin

Tashryn Mohd ShahrinMA
International Relations
University of

recent debate about Singapore’s amoral treatment of foreign workers residing
and working in the country has been renewed  as dormitory outbreaks are
on the rise.On April 20, the Ministry of Health reportedly confirmed 1,426 new
cases of Covid-19 infection – the sharpest increase in numbers since the
outbreak began in January. The following day, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
announced the extension of Singapore’s Circuit Breaker period – “to break the
chain of transmission and stem the spread of the deadly disease – rather than
the restrictions on its people” – till June 1st after
another 1,111 new cases were reported. Among these new cases in the last few
days, the majority continue to be linked to foreign worker dormitories
(Straits Times, 2020).Singapore is officially the worst hit country in the
region with the highest number of confirmed cases in Southeast Asia.Foreign
workers and their realities in Singapore are barely visible to the public
eye, being out of mind and out of sight while being unintrusive of peoples’
daily consciousness. Before Covid-19, their voices were almost unheard of and
now because of the surge in infections in their living spaces have they begun
to be more apparent. The question we should ask ourselves is,
why did it take a pandemic to shed light on the unethical
treatment of foreign workers?
The exclusion of marginalised
communities is grounded in a culture of fear among labour migrants. By extension,
labour rights is limited for these migrants who do not have a minimum wage,
pay high agent fees and are reluctant to take the risk of reporting sick lest
they get sacked etc. There are a variety of issues stacked against them which
refrains them from speaking up nor participate in any discourse due to the
fear of repercussions. Covid-19 has added more reasons to fuel this fear as
Singapore tries to tackle the second wave of the virus that largely stems
from their dormitories.“With up to 20 people in each room, it will be
impossible to contain the spread as it was difficult to even maintain a 1m
distance between people in rooms” (TODAY Singapore, 2020)“We have been
isolated, and that’s fine. It’s necessary. But we are still at risk. Four of
our friends are infected. But no one has briefed us on what to do” (BBC,
2020)Increasing numbers of migrant workers are reaching out for assistance
from charities and NGOs as they seek redress for the problems they are facing
during this time. They share their problems of increased workload, salary
issues, abrupt termination, doubt about their rest days compensation and
denial of access to healthcare and medical aid among others which are not
very different from their circumstances before the pandemic (HOME &
CNA, 2020). Evidently, they are living in fear not just because of the
infection but also their livelihoods!The bare minimum that reaches the public
eye about the abuses migrant workers suffer contradicts their very real fears
of being discriminated against, losing their jobs or deported for speaking
up. How much more would we know if these migrant workers were
able and supported, to speak freely?
The government has a
moral duty to ensure protection for these workers who provide feedback about
their abuses.Thousands of cases of unpaid salaries, poor living conditions,
poor food quality, work injury claims, unjust dismissals, illegal setbacks
and many other types of exploitation that rights-based groups like the
Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) and Transient
Workers Count Too (TCW2) see on a yearly basis illustrates the extent of the
problem, whether in general or during this crisis. Their helplines are
overwhelmed with migrant workers during these harsh times which shows that a
significant number of the 590,000 foreign domestic workers and construction
workers are clearly falling through the gaps (MOM, 2020). Despite their best
outreach efforts, the most difficult issue is that some NGOs are not listed
as essential services in the midst of the Circuit Breaker period and are
therefore prohibited from doing their work properly even with the resources
they have.RecommendationsAdvocacy
for foreign workers and the kindness and generosity of Singaporeans might
save those who are falling through the cracks. However, the success of civil
society in Singapore depends upon the willingness of the government to yield
to their concerns. The government certainly has the power to implement labour
protection policies and move the foreign workers out of their crowded
dormitories – there is no need to wait for a public outcry to react on the
matter.Migrant workers need more access to democratic spaces to speak up for
themselves. Instead of making cosmetic changes like handing out free masks or
hand sanitizers (MOM, 2020), give them more leeway to speak on their own
behalf. Ask them directly about their issues and act on them. Their insights
are far more profound than academics or policymakers. It is not difficult to
enable more avenues for them to communicate their concerns while at the same
time learning the means to communicate with them ourselves.Despite the
hostile, tight spaces of advocacy and civil society, Singaporean citizens can
keep asking questions that directly address systems of exploitations. We have
to keep supporting activism especially when we know what is at stake. In the
long run, hopefully, change can happen in salami slices.The government needs
to start protecting the labour rights and other human rights of migrant
workers in much more resolute and uncompromising ways. Otherwise, the
well-being issues faced by migrant workers will be felt long after the
Covid-19 crisis is over.References:n.d.
Advisories on COVID-19. Singapore Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Retrieved from:
Foreign workforce numbers. Singapore Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Retrieved
Governments’ Three-Pronged Strategy to stop the spread: Plugging the Gaps?
Home for Migration Economics (HOME), April 18. Retrieved from:,
C. (2020) Coronavirus: Singapore’s migrant workers ‘living in fear’. BBC
News, 22 April. Retrieved from:,
R., Iau, J. & Yong, C. (2020) 1369 of the 1426 coronavirus cases
confirmed in S’pore are foreign workers living in dormitories. The Straits
Times, April 20. Retrieved from:,
N. & Elangovan, N. (2020) Covid-19: Some foreign workers feel ‘safer’
in dorms, others lament lack of enforcement, cramped spaces. TODAY Singapore,
17 April. Retrieved from:,
R. (2020) NGOs launch initiatives to help migrant workers amid COVID-19
outbreak. Channel News Asia (CAN), 10 April. Retrieved from: 

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