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Coronavirus: After Little India Riot, Singapore Promised Migrant Workers Decent Housing. What Happened?

  • Some 13,000 migrant workers in dorms – mostly from India, Bangladesh and China – have tested positive for Covid-19 since the start of April

  • Their living conditions have now become a matter of national debate amid criticism they were in the government’s blind spot

Before leaving his hometown of Dhaka 17 years ago in search of better wages in Singapore’s construction industry, Zakir Hossain Khokan was a freelance journalist in Bangladesh.
It cost S$10,000 (US$7,094) to pay the recruiters, but his family was able to raise the funds by selling land and taking out loans and the 41-year-old is now a quality assurance officer, living in one of the city state’s many crowded mega-dormitories.
The living conditions of Singapore’s army of low-wage migrant workers have become a matter of national debate over the past month as the novel coronavirus swept through their dormitories – the biggest of which house between 10 and 20 men to a room, sometimes sharing a communal shower area with more than 100 others.
Since the start of April, some 13,000 migrant workers living in dorms – mostly labourers from India, Bangladesh and China – have tested positive for the Covid-19 illness caused by the virus, constituting some 85 per cent of Singapore’s total infections.
Some 13,000 migrant workers living in Singapore’s dorms have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Photo: AFP

The dormitory operators, ranging from listed conglomerates to smaller construction companies, have since come in for criticism after reports emerged of kitchens infested with cockroaches, and bathrooms with overflowing urinals. As dormitories are regulated by the government, it has raised questions about how the authorities have enforced rules, why they seemed to have overlooked a brewing outbreak and if tougher legislation is needed on dormitories, some of which have become highly profitable for their owners.

At Cochrane Lodge 2 where Khokan has lived for eight years, dormitory staff seemed unprepared for the Covid-19 outbreak, he said, even though Singapore had its first infection as early as January 23 and the first migrant worker caught the disease on February 8.

The dormitory’s 4,000 residents were initially not given face masks or information, so everyone was worried as they did not know what was going on, Khokan said. Supplies were given only in April.

About one-third of the island nation’s 1 million-strong low-wage foreign workforce are packed into its 43 mega-dormitories and 1,200 factory-converted dormitories, as well as an undocumented number of temporary living quarters on construction sites.

A migrant worker at the Westlite Mandai dormitory is tested for Covid-19 on Wednesday. Photo: EPA

As the virus continues to cut a swathe through such facilities, critics have pointed out how low-wage workers appeared to be in Singapore’s blind spot in its handling of the pandemic, which had won plaudits early on. Their cramped and filthy living conditions were described as a “time bomb waiting to explode” by long-time diplomat and ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh on April 6, a day after nearly 20,000 workers in two mega-dormitories were put under a quarantine lockdown.
The jump in cases among migrant workers also fuelled a wave of xenophobia. Some Singaporeans blamed the workers’ living habits as the cause of the outbreak, and, elsewhere, viral messages suggested that foreign domestic helpers who had migrant workers as their boyfriends would have been infected with the coronavirus too. Koh said the way Singapore treated its foreign workers was “not First World but Third World”.

The underpinning societal divide between migrant workers and Singaporeans that the pandemic has exposed is nothing new. In 2008, for example, residents of the upper-middle-class Serangoon Gardens neighbourhood fought the government’s plans to convert an unused school there into a workers’ dormitory. Of the 7,000 households, 1,400 signed a petition, citing how there might be higher crime rates and that property values would fall. Even though the government eventually went ahead with its plan, multiple changes were made, including the building of a road so that buses transporting workers could bypass the congested neighbourhood.

Some mega-dorms, or what officials call purpose-built dormitories, had already existed then, but what led to their proliferation and a concerted effort to move more workers into these quarters was a riot in Little India in 2013. A road accident in December that year killed an Indian construction worker, angering other foreign workers who formed a 300-strong mob that set fire to police and emergency vehicles. Some 50 police officers were injured and the government had to mobilise its elite Gurkha contingent.

In the light of the episode, then deputy prime minister and home affairs minister Teo Chee Hean convened a committee of inquiry to investigate the riot. Residents testified that migrant workers, who visited Little India to buy groceries and remit money, would often congregate under apartment buildings to drink and eat. Some residents said they were unhappy that the workers littered, vomited and urinated there.

The committee later recommended that the government work with dormitory operators to include more facilities at workers’ living quarters. “Dormitory-based provision shops, especially if reasonably priced, could also encourage some workers to stay at their dormitory rather than travel out to a congregation area,” it said in its 2014 report.

The government eventually commissioned the building of purpose-built dormitory complexes with minimarts, food courts, and even cinemas and cricket fields – described by then manpower minister Tan Chuan-Jin as “self-contained living, social and recreational facilities” when he introduced the legislation governing them in 2015. This Foreign Employee Dormitories Act (FEDA) sets out how mega-dormitories with more than 1,000 workers should be licensed and run, including provisions for sanitation, hygiene and living space per worker.


Even as new rules were enacted, dormitory operators saw huge market potential, as construction and manufacturing firms continued to import foreign labour.

Centurion Corporation, for example – which lists five of the city state’s mega-dormitories among the 12 worker accommodation assets it operates across Singapore and Malaysia – reported an 11 per cent jump in revenue to S$133.4 million (US$94.66 million) last year from the previous financial year.

The group’s chief executive, Kong Chee Min, told This Week in Asia that Centurion focused on the accommodation business in 2011 to capture “growth opportunities in this niche market”. “We saw a shortage of purpose-built accommodation for foreign workers in Singapore, where we rely heavily on foreign labour.”

Ngoh Yi Sin, an equity research analyst at CIMB Bank, said a regulatory shift which required employers to move workers into accommodation of a higher standard further drove demand. The industry was not easy to enter, she said, noting the huge amount of start-up capital and scale a firm would need – but Lee Keng Ling, an analyst at DBS Bank, said Centurion, among other early players, had the first-mover advantage, which allowed business to quickly take off. Centurion’s purpose-built worker accommodation segment registered annual average growth of 37 per cent from 2011 to 2019, according to Kong. The firm’s dormitories – Weslite Toh Guan, Westlite Mandai, Westlite Woodlands, Westlite Juniper and ASPRI-Westlite Papan – house 28,000 workers.

There are 27 players in Singapore’s concentrated dormitory industry, most of which are profit-making enterprises, though eight dorms are non-commercial. While commercial players charge about S$300 to S$400 per worker a month, non-commercial operators use their dormitories to house their own workers.

As well as Centurion, other major operators include Vorbis Enterprise, a wholly owned subsidiary of Aik Chuan Construction Group, which owns three dormitories in Singapore housing more than 20,000 workers. SembCorp Industries, Keppel Corporation, Capital Development, S11 Capital Investment, and Cushman & Wakefield Facilities and Engineering all also operate more than one dorm. All of them have declined to comment on their dormitory ventures and the impact of the pandemic. Other smaller players include construction companies and shipping lines.


Most of Singapore’s migrant workers who have caught the coronavirus live in commercially operated dormitories. The first dormitory cluster was identified on March 30, with four infections at S11 dormitory at Punggol, run by S11 Capital Investment. The 14,000-bed S11 dorm – which can rake in an annual turnover of S$55 million if full – is now the largest infection cluster with 2,436 cases. As of Wednesday, more than 13,000 migrants living in dormitories had been found to have the virus.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo attributed the explosion in cases to workers socialising across dormitories on their days off, then with different groups of friends within their dormitories. The authorities have also identified the 400,000 sq ft Mustafa Centre – popular with migrant workers, locals and tourists – as a starting point of the virus’ spread among workers.

Another reason for the rapid spread was that most migrant workers continued to do their jobs even after some businesses in Singapore had begun to implement work-from-home arrangements and other mitigation efforts, according to Kong, the Centurion CEO.

The 400,000 sq ft Mustafa Centre, identified as a starting point for the virus’ spread, is seen cordoned off in the Little India area of Singapore on April 20. Photo: Bloomberg

“As a result, they were at a greater risk of exposure to the virus … They have worked tirelessly, all the time knowing that, despite precautions taken, they were putting themselves at risk of infection to keep Singapore going,” he said, in a written response to questions. About 500 workers living in Centurion-owned dormitories have caught the virus so far.

In response to the surging rates of infection among migrant workers, Singapore gazetted 25 of its 43 dormitories as isolation zones, with workers staying in their rooms and meals sent to them. All construction has been halted and workers outside dorms have been put on stay-home notice. The government is also testing close to 3,000 workers a day and quickly isolating sick ones. In dorms with widespread infections, workers showing symptoms are isolated and monitored, and only tested later.

When asked in a BBC interview whether the pandemic had “brought to the surface the flaws in Singapore’s society” and if poor living conditions in dormitories was a systemic problem, Teo, the manpower minister, said the ministry took “some safe-distancing measures” within the dormitories but added that “if we were to be able to rewind the clock, one could say that these safe-distancing measures needed to go much further”.

Local migrant rights groups sounded the alarm bells about the higher risk of infections in dormitories weeks after the first case was reported in the city state in late January. On February 15, activist Cai Yinzhou in a Facebook post wrote about the urgent need to decrease the density of workers’ rooms and for quarantine facilities to be prepared in advance.
Non-profit Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) in a forum letter to The Straits Times on March 23 made a similar plea to the government.
It cited how the risk of new clusters among foreign workers was undeniable because “foreign workers are housed 12 to 20 men per room in double-decker beds [and they] are transported to work on the back of lorries sitting shoulder to shoulder”.

Two migrant workers are seen outside their dormitory room in Singapore on Wednesday. Photo: AFP

For his part, Kong defended the dormitories, saying that they were “designed in normal times and deemed to be entirely appropriate”. “Two months ago, no one had heard of safe distancing, and no one envisaged anything like Covid-19,” he said.

Other employers, including Melissa Tan, who owns a company in the environment sector that hires 45 foreign workers from Malaysia, China and India, said the government had set “strict criteria” for dormitories big and small alike. She houses her workers in a ministry-approved factory-converted dormitory. “I feel our government has done enough for the workers and there is a limitation for governments to control or regulate,” she said, adding that licences for dormitories were renewed every three years.

However, some employers have gone above and beyond what is required of them by law. Hussain Abdul, a 36-year-old mechanical engineer, was moved out of Sungei Tengah Lodge in early March and now lives in company premises with just two colleagues and plenty of space for social distancing. His employer also delivers food and groceries weekly.

Audits, and other checks and balances such as media scrutiny, also worked to shine a spotlight on dormitory operators, said Ngoh, the analyst. In March, Labourtel Management Corporation – a part of property and logistics solutions firm MES Group that operates four dormitories in the city state – became the first company to be convicted under FEDA, after inspections of its facilities revealed that they were filthy and unacceptable.


Moving forward, Ngoh said that the authorities could put in place higher requirements for worker accommodation, including having more facilities and increasing the space per worker. A cap on the number of workers a dormitory could hold could also be on the cards, she said.

But Lee, the analyst from DBS, said that this would equate to higher operation costs which could, in turn, force smaller players out of the market as more money would be needed for refurbishing and reconfiguring facilities. Centurion CEO Kong said he would expect current regulations to be reviewed, adding that any tightening of standards could “only be good for the foreign worker community”.

Migrant rights groups and activists have expressed hope that the pandemic will prove to be a reality check that leads to structural issues being resolved. One particular point of contention is the apparent absence of a Commissioner for Foreign Employee Dormitories who was supposed to be appointed under the 2015 act.

This commissioner was meant to oversee licensing of the city state’s mega-dormitories so that they conform to “higher standards”, but the authorities have not confirmed that such an official was indeed appointed. In introducing the FEDA legislation, then manpower minister Tan Chuan-Jin said this commissioner would impose conditions on dormitories to include how dorm operators “must develop quarantine plans, in the event of an infectious disease outbreak, and provide sufficient sick bay facilities”.

This Week in Asia has reached out to the manpower ministry for a comment.

Other criticisms relate to the irregularity with which inspections have supposedly been carried out and the fact that it took nearly four years after the act was introduced for a company to be charged under it.

Yet there could be a silver lining from the crisis in that Singapore is now looking at ways to change how it houses its 323,000 low-wage foreign workers. National Development Minister Lawrence Wong has referred to an “extensive plan” to build new housing for foreign workers at new sites that would be ready in a year or two.

The government has also made swift efforts to fix the problems that have emerged – ramping up cleaning, waste management and sanitation efforts at workers’ dormitories, as well as deploying a dedicated team comprising 380 to 400 personnel from the Singapore Armed Forces and the Singapore Police Force to ensure timely food delivery. Teo, the manpower minister, has been visiting facilities and ensuring that workers abide by social-distancing regulations, and the public has been kept informed of all the latest developments. The authorities have also ensured that Muslim workers get prayer mats and essentials for breaking fast, such as dates, during the fasting month of Ramadan.

Asked to imagine what the new housing for migrant workers referred to in the government’s pledge might look like, former president of TWC2 John Gee said that at the very least more space should be allotted for each worker, with more toilets and showers provided. But he wants the change to go further. “Workers’ own views should be extensively consulted,” he said, citing complaints TWC2 had received from workers who had opted to live outside dormitories in substandard accommodation because it was closer to their place of work and they could spend less time travelling.

Men stand with their belongings as they talk to a security guard to gain entry into a foreign workers’ dormitory currently under coronavirus quarantine. Photo: AFP

Nanyang Technological University sociologist Laavanya Kathiravelu agreed that the workers themselves should be more involved in the process.

“Their fear of speaking out and having visas revoked and lack of direct communication channels to the state are both structural problems that need to be addressed,” she said, suggesting that “a dorm management committee of sorts for each dormitory or a union of migrants to better represent migrant interests directly to the relevant ministries could be formed”.

Teo, the manpower minister, said in a Facebook post that dorm standards should be raised, but complained that “each time we attempt to raise standards, employers yelp – these are added costs which they must eventually pass on.”

Migrant worker advocates, however, have a solution for this. Employers currently pay a foreign worker levy to the government for each migrant worker hired, which ranges from S$300 to S$950 a month. Both Gee and Luke Tan, a casework manager at the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), said parts of this levy could be channelled towards the workers’ well-being and wage protection.

Otherwise, “it is a race to the bottom to minimise expenses; hence we do not believe many would pay for better living conditions”, Tan said. “That would mean a change in government policy but would probably be the easiest for businesses to digest,” Gee said.

Migrant workers living in a factory-converted dormitory collect food delivered by the Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach NGO. Photo: Reuters

While some workers might flee Singapore in the wake of the pandemic, advocates said more would come because of the enduring poverty in their homelands. Gee said there was an incentive for Singapore to retain workers who had already caught Covid-19 as they would have acquired some immunity to the disease. “This may be seen as a plus in reducing the likelihood of a second spread of Covid-19 and another big shutdown. Maybe this will incentivise the government to make it easier for workers here to change jobs without cost,” he said.

Gee and Kathiravelu said they were hopeful that the government would become more involved in how these dorms were operated. Gee said there could be a mixed system, with some dorms operated by the government to set the standards for commercial operators.

“We can make a case for dormitories to be directly managed by a state entity like the Housing and Development Board,” Kathiravelu said. “Even then, checks on quality and standards should be regularly carried out by non-governmental organisations and other independent bodies. When guided by a profit-driven model, employers or dormitory operators will not place public health or migrant residents’ welfare as key concerns.”

Tan, the Home casework manager, said the current outbreak should trigger some soul-searching. “Are migrant workers simply recipients of pity and charity? Or is it time for a rights-based approach that fully respects our shared humanity and concretely, legally and practically, empowers the workers? To change government policy, we need to change the mentality of society,” he said.


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