While Singapore was praised early on for its response to COVID-19, with less than 600 cases by the beginning of April, that number has since increased to over 17,000. As of May 6 2020, 17,758 migrant workers living in dormitories tested positive for the Coronavirus. This figure represents 88 per cent of all cases in the city-state. As daily cases increased, a very small number of them were citizens or permanent residents, with the largest share being migrant workers. From the increase of cases since early April, the country went into a lockdown on April 7 and has been extended to June 1. For Singaporeans, this has meant online classes, shuttering of nonessential workplaces, and fines for breaches of social distance measures. For numerous migrant workers, including men living in dormitories, this lockdown has meant confinement, as over 20 dormitories have been listed as isolation areas under the Infectious Diseases Act. While the notion of flattening the curve remains the principle for the general populace, the outbreak in the dormitories is far from under control.
Singapore’s approximately 5.7 million residents includes 1.4 million migrant workers, who represent around a quarter of the population. This includes those working as housekeepers, domestic helpers, construction workers, and manual labourers. The extensive use of foreign labour, dating back to the governance of Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, coincides with the significant growth the city-state experienced over the course of 40 years. From a per-capita income of $4,071 per year at that time, to $56,786 in 2019, Singapore has grown into the second richest country per capita in Asia. However, there are significant disparities between Singaporeans and migrant workers. While the average monthly Singaporean salary is $3,077, migrant workers earn $500 to $600 monthly, with salaries as low as $250. Further, some employers do not offer medical care or paid sick leave to migrant workers. As their visas are linked to their employers, the risk for workers to file complaints is very high due to the threat of termination.
On April 4, 75 new coronavirus cases were recorded, the largest increase in a single day. Clusters of cases were found in migrant worker dormitories, in which 200,000 workers live in 43 dormitories. Dormitories have about 10 to 20 workers per room, and such rooms are usually 45 to 90 square meters. The workers share toilets, shower stalls, laundry clotheslines, storage spaces, and line up together for food. In such living arrangements, which can involve 100 workers sharing a block of five toilets and five shower stalls, conditions are ripe for the spread of a contagious disease like COVID-19.
Vice President of the non-profit Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), Alex Au, said “When the government of Singapore, governments all over the world, issued safe distancing advice, I think they overlooked the fact that safe distancing cannot be possible when construction workers and other blue-collar workers are housed ten men, 20 men, in a room.” He added, “The failure, I think, to see clearly the risks and to take measures to mitigate the risks, left us with a very bad situation right now.” Au also said “This present crisis actually reflects a far bigger systemic problem of the state being relatively fine or not so concerned about the welfare, the well-being, and the rights of migrants.”
Josephine Teo, Minister of Manpower, among other government officials, acknowledged that improvements to the rights and standards of livng: “Should standards in foreign worker dormitories be raised? There’s no question in my mind, answer is ‘yes’.” She added “I hope the Covid-19 episode demonstrates to the employers and wider public that raising standards at worker dormitories is not only the right thing to do, but also in our own interests.”
In light of the issues that migrants face in Singapore, before and now during this global pandemic, important structural changes must be implemented. Ensuring that workers are better protected and compensated, and live in better working conditions, is essential to Address inequalities and improve public health outcomes. Presently, the lack of an appropriate degree of communication and engagement with migrant workers has allowed for the coronavirus to continue to be a significant issue in Singapore, despite earlier outlooks. The government has a responsibility to ensure that there is a better level of care and consideration given to this sector of Singapore.
Long-term changes are important. Even if the outbreak does not significantly spread to the wider population, the battle that migrant workers are having with this illness must be treated with a high degree of significance. Migrant workers must ultimately be seen as very valuable members of the community, and as critical participants in the prosperity that the city-state of Singapore has enjoyed.