Josephine Teo: Raising dormitory standards 'right thing to do', will first focus on containing Covid-19 spread

Teo said that she will deal with this issue in a dedicated way, concluding that 'you have my word'.

Martino Tan | April 06, 2020, 11:18 PM

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo has elaborated on minimising the further spread of Covid-19 in foreign worker dormitories, and said unequivocally that there is no question in her mind that standards in dormitories should be raised.

However, she urged Singaporeans to let her MOM team focus on managing the enormity of the task of containing the transmission of Covid-19 at the dormitories first, before dealing with the living standards issue in a more dedicated way.

Her Facebook post also addressed the online chatter surrounding Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh's criticisms on the poor conditions of foreign worker dormitories.

Tommy Koh's criticism

In a Facebook post on Apr. 6, Koh said the dormitories were like a "time bomb waiting to explode", and added that "the way Singapore treats its foreign workers is not First World but Third World".

Koh was referring to an article published by the Straits Times (ST), where workers from S11 dormitory told ST that their rooms are "infested with cockroaches" and the "toilets are overflowing."

In response, Johnathan Cheah, Managing Director, S11 Dormitories, told that they have managed to increase their cleaning crew by another 10 cleaners and "the situation has vastly improved over the past 24 hours".

Many foreign workers previously lived in very poor & unhygienic conditions

First, Teo provided the historical context on the previous living conditions of foreign workers, according to a Ministry of Manpower (MOM) press release on Apr. 6.

She said that many foreign workers lived in very poor and unhygienic conditions before such dormitories were built. In fact, their employers would often house them at the sites where they worked just to save costs.

Over the years, around 200,000 of them now live in purpose-built dormitories like S11@Punggol and Westlite Toh Guan.

Second, Teo shared why the decision was taken to build the current dormitories.

It was in fact to raise standards and take care of the workers wellbeing. Teo noted that Singapore now have 43 of such dormitories in Singapore.

In numbers of numbers, it was akin to building up the whole of Ang Mo Kio or Pasir Ris-Punggol towns.

Licence conditions must be adhered to, including sanitation

The purpose-built dormitories have the following facilities:

  • Proper sleeping rooms with beds
  • Dedicated toilet and shower facilities
  • Recreational spaces with TVs, newspapers etc
  • Supermarkets or minimarts, stocked with food, snacks and necessities according to the workers’ preferences

    dedicated sick bays

Teo said that the dormitories are licensed under the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act, requiring operators to comply with a set of licence conditions including maintaining standards for cleanliness, water supply, sanitation and hygiene of premises.

Moreover, MOM officers conduct regular inspections to ensure that licence conditions are adhered to.

Covid-19 shows public the important of raising standards at worker dormitories

Third, Teo shared the challenges of raising standards in dormitories, as they increased costs for the employers and the public.

Nevertheless, she hopes that the Covid-19 episode demonstrates to the employers and the wider public that "raising standards at worker dormitories is not only the right thing to do, but also in our own interests".

She also hopes that Singaporeans would be willing to accept the higher costs that come with higher standards.

Teo: My team is already working round-the-clock

In the meantime, Teo urged Singaporeans to let her team focus on the Covid-19 situation.

She revealed that her team is "already working round-the-clock".

This is because they are on the frontlines dealing with the tense conditions in managing the 200,000 workers, who are spread out in 43 dormitories.

She urged Singaporeans not to demoralise the MOM staff with finger-pointing.

Finally she promised Singaporeans that "you have my word" that MOM will deal with the living conditions of dormitories in a dedicated way after the Covid-19 “circuit breaker” measures that will start tomorrow (Apr. 7).

The measures will include shutting down most workplaces and all schools.

Food establishments, markets and supermarkets, clinics, hospitals, utilities, transport and key banking services will remain open.

You can see Teo's post below:

Related story:

Top photo from Josephine Teo Facebook.