At first, it just seemed like a few isolated cases of Covid-19.
Lacking in rooms to quarantine these employees of his, James (not his real name) took to isolating those who had been in close contact with confirmed patients at the dormitory’s sheltered carpark.
It was in mid-April when things really started getting messy, though.
Speaking to Mothership on the condition of anonymity, James — a 54-year-old senior manager of a mechanical and electrical contracting company that employs about 400 foreign workers — said that a recent outbreak of Covid-19 among his employees has sent him scrambling over the last few weeks.
About 300 of the workers, James explained, had been staying at premises operated by his company:
“This dormitory is only for workers in our company. We are not a dorm operator per se in that we have different companies (staying here). This is our own dorm, we control it, we manage them, we provide food, we provide medical care.”
270 workers moved in the dark
According to James, a medical team arrived at the dormitory on Apr. 16 offering to conduct a check on anyone who was unwell. 17 workers with symptoms asked to see the doctors and were tested for Covid-19.
Results returned on Apr. 18 showing that 14 of the workers had tested positive for the virus. Nine of them were taken out of the dormitory, leaving five still to be isolated on the company’s premises.
The next day, on Apr. 19, James said Certis Cisco personnel arrived at his dormitory, “without any notice” and with a list of workers that had to be moved out to government quarantine facilities.
All in all, about 270 workers would have to leave the dormitory.
The stress of having to organise that many workers into separate groups at short notice was compounded when James eventually realised that he would have no clue where his employees were going or who exactly the Certis Cisco personnel were taking away.
It was “protocol” not to divulge such information to employers, James was told, when he asked the officer-in-charge for a copy of the list of workers that had to be moved and where they would be placed.
Calling every person in every place
This left the senior manager and his colleagues having to track their workers down by contacting as many as they possibly could, and taking note where each worker had ended up.
“We literally had to call every person in every place, because they were quarantined in their own rooms. They wouldn’t know who (else was in the same facility) unless they’re in the same room. A lot of effort was made to track and trace where our workers are.”
They eventually deduced that the workers were being quarantined across six different locations — a mix of hotels, an industrial space, and another dormitory.
That night, James and the other managers drove out to the locations to try and hand out food and snacks to the workers.
Having received no information on his workers since they were whisked off on Apr. 19, the company has had to fill the gaps through constant communication with their workers.
What James and his colleagues were told was that all 270 of the workers were swabbed on Apr. 21 and 22.
“Then from last Saturday, which is the 25th I think, they started moving people around again.”
Some of the workers were moved from one room within their facility to another, while others were shifted to completely new facilities.
“And they were asking me, ‘Boss do you know what happened?’ I said ‘Nope they don’t tell us anything.’
Workers do not know their results, even though they’ve been swabbed. And they’re being moved around without being told why they’re moved around.”
James said that from what the company can gather, workers who had been moved to a new facility eventually ended up at one of three locations — Singapore EXPO, Clementi Sports Centre, or Tanjong Gul Camp.
Lots of questions, no answers
Talking to me from his office at a now-empty dormitory, James says he is required to fill out forms from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) regularly.
The MOM form requires the company — as the operator of a factory-converted dormitory — to report on the health of its workers.
A copy of the form James showed to me included many questions he simply did not have the answers to.
The form has blanks requiring him to declare the “total number of infected cases” and “number of residents serving quarantine order in government quarantine facilities” — neither of which he could respond to, as he, as well as his very own workers, were kept in the dark about where they were, whether they were being quarantined, or the outcome of their Covid-19 tests.
“I’m still in the midst of collating this information, so I have not yet submitted,” said James.
Even at the time he was talking to me, James said he still could not account for the whereabouts of at least five of his workers.
Screenshots of text messages between James and the workers he had managed to contact showed conversations between two parties who were none the wiser about what was going on with regard to their Covid-19 swab test results and quarantine arrangements.
James related how one of his workers who was transferred to Clementi Sports Hall apparently found out the results of his test by asking the person driving him there.
Having overseen foreign workers for more than 10 years to date, James said he was hoping the workers — some of whom are turning increasingly anxious — could at least get more concrete answers on the status of their health.
“I’m not just saying it for the sake of saying it, but I do feel for the guys. I do have guys coming back telling me ‘When can I come back?’
They do not know what’s happening, they do not know why they are treated the way they are treated.”
The biggest fear
This whole ordeal has also taken a toll on his company’s big boss.
“He cares a lot,” said James, describing how his boss — a man in his 70s — had personally gone to the market to buy food for his workers after suppliers stopped their service to the dormitory upon hearing news of the first positive cases.
In the meantime, James is one of the few people at his company still turning up to the office.
James told me that he had volunteered to do so when the company required someone to on its premises to liaise with government ministries and agencies.
Before leaving the house, he spends some time helping his youngest daughter with her home-based learning, eventually getting to the office around 10am.
In the early days of the outbreak at his dormitory, James would come home at 10 or 11pm. Since the majority of his workers were taken to government facilities, however, he now returns earlier, between 7 and 8pm.
Every day before entering his house, he makes sure to wash his hands thoroughly and change his clothes, lest he brings any trace of the virus with him.
But these precautions do nothing to remove the feeling of guilt that rests heavily on his chest.
“The biggest fear… the biggest fear is that am I being selfish? Because I may have caught (the virus) and passed it to my family.”
Feeling the full weight of his words, the 54-year-old takes a long pause, his breath wavering.
James realises that continuing to leave the house everyday and working at the dormitories puts him at a higher risk of infection.
However, he can't ignore the duty and responsibility he feels towards the workers and his boss.
The stress of the whole situation, he said, is keenly felt by his wife and four children, who range in age from 7 to 27 years old.
“It rubs off on the whole family when I go home. It was personally pretty draining.”
Similar accounts of workers not kept informed of their medical statuses
Responding to queries from Mothership, Ethan Guo, general manager of non-governmental organisation (NGO) Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) said his volunteers had heard similar accounts of foreign workers who were not kept informed of their medical statuses.
"It would be nice if they were informed, at least out of courtesy and to help allay their fears," said Guo.
Dipa Swaminathan from NGO ItsRainingRaincoats told Mothership that her team found the process of workers being moved to government quarantine facilities "a bit opaque".
From what her team understood, workers mostly received their results a day or two after being tested for Covid-19. Those in hotels were also moved out after two weeks to other facilities.
"NGOs have asked MOM to help with a process map so they can educate the workers," she added.
Mothership has reached out to the MOM for clarity on the situation faced by this employer and his workers, and is awaiting a response from them.
Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.
Top image from James and NUHS Facebook page