Migrant worker dormitories have been officially 'declared cleared of Covid-19'. What now?

Mothership Explains: Singapore's migrant worker dormitories have been declared to be cleared of Covid-19. However, that doesn't mean that life goes back to normal for those living within the dormitories.

Jane Zhang | August 21, 2020, 04:14 PM

Singapore’s migrant worker dormitories have been hit particularly hard by the Covid-19 outbreak. As of 12pm on Aug. 20, 53,068 — or 94.6 per cent — of the country’s 56,099 Covid-19 cases were migrant workers living in dormitories.

And while the process of screening the dormitories for Covid-19 was not without incident — 800 cleared migrant workers had to be quarantined again after a new case was discovered among them — the Ministry of Health (MOH) finally announced on Aug. 17 that all dormitories, including the standalone blocks which served as isolation facilities, have been completely cleared of Covid-19.

So, in light of these developments, what’s next for Singapore’s migrant workers, now that their dormitories have been officially “declared cleared”? What is life like for migrant workers now, and what is to come for them?

We spoke with two migrant workers — 41-year-old Bangladeshi national Zakir Hossain Khokan and a 43-year-old Chinese national who asked to be identified as Wang — and took a look at what has been announced by the government, in order to get a sense of what is happening now and what's next.

Some workers still undergo regular screening

While the dormitories have been cleared, migrant workers will still undergo regular screening for Covid-19, using what is called Rostered Routine Testing (RRT).

Under RRT, tests are conducted on a biweekly basis for migrant workers deemed to be in higher-risk settings, namely, those living in dormitories, workers who work in construction or production sites, and workers in the construction, marine and process sectors.

MOH and MOM stated on Aug. 18 that, through RRTs, they had detected about 100 Covid-19 cases in cleared dormitories, and that some of these workers had resumed working prior to being detected.

Work restarting under MOM measures

Workers can resume work if they have a Green AccessCode on the SGWorkPass app, indicating that their dormitories have completed the necessary preparations to allow dormitory residents to resume work in a safe manner.

In a statement on Aug. 19, MOM said that overall, some 84 per cent, or 240,000 dormitory residents working in the Construction, Marine and Process (CMP) sectors have Green AccessCodes as of Aug. 19.

In addition, workers are also required to download and activate the latest version of TraceTogether.

Aside from that, they also have to monitor their health and report their temperature and any acute respiratory symptoms through the FWMOMCare App twice a day.

Guidelines require employers to instruct workers not to talk or interact while on employer-provided transportation, and maintain a 25 per cent reduction of their vehicles' Maximum Passenger Capacity (MPC).

With these measures in place, Zakir shared, some of his roommates have returned to work. On the other hand, while Wang has received a Green AccessCode on his SGWorkPass app, he has yet to return to work simply because there is no work to be done.

Plans for safe rest days

Although the dormitories are cleared, migrant workers are still currently required to spend their rest days in their dormitories.

MOH said in a statement that this is to prevent another wave of infections that will "set back the hard work of the many stakeholders and the workers themselves in clearing the dormitories over the past months".

However, MOM acknowledged in a press release on Aug. 12 that social activities are important for the mental well-being of migrant workers, and that the next steps are to work toward allowing dormitory residents to leave for leisure and personal errands, and eventually to enjoy their rest days without movement restrictions.

As such, MOM will be starting small-scale scale trials in August for residents from selected cleared dormitories to visit Recreation Centres on their rest days for personal errands such as buying groceries, SIM cards and remitting money.

In order to prevent crowding outside of the dormitories on rest days, workers will need to apply for a Dormitory Exit Pass through their SGWorkPass app, which will provide them with a specific exit time slot.

Only residents in the participating dormitories who fulfil the following criteria will be granted an Exit Pass:

  1. Has recovered from Covid-19, or has a negative swab test result within 14 days prior to the exit date;
  2. Not be on Quarantine Order or Stay Home Notice;
  3. Is staying in a cleared dormitory;
  4. Has installed and registered TraceTogether; and
  5. Chooses an Exit Pass time slot with available vacancies.

MOM said that this measured approach ensures that residents and the broader community are kept safe and healthy.

In the meantime, migrant workers are allowed to leave their dormitories for essential reasons after their employers or dormitory operators submit the necessary information to MOM.

The list of essential errands allowed include:

  • Collection of passport
  • Work Pass related errands
  • Medical appointments
  • Dental appointments
  • Banking services
  • Court hearings, investigations and related activities

Information about which dormitories these trials will encompass, or how many workers they will include, have not yet been announced by MOM.

MOM said that it plans to progressively ramp up the number of participating dormitories over the next two months, and aims to have all dormitory residents able to apply for Exit Passes to visit Recreation Centres by Oct. 2020.

Prolonged isolation takes toll on mental health

While there is no doubt that a measured approach is essential to keeping everyone safe, it is prolonging an isolation which has already taken a toll on some workers' mental health.

Unpaid or partially paid salaries

Salary issues too have caused the workers quite a bit of stress, shared Zakir and Wang.

There are workers who cannot remit money to their families because they are unable to leave their dormitories, said Zakir:

"This is one kind of another frustration: their family chasing them because their family need money."

In April, MOM stated that workers can utilise mobile remittance agents activated at certain dormitories or online remittance services. However, Zakir said that many workers are not familiar with online remittance services and don't know how to use them.

The salary issue is also exacerbated by the fact that some workers' salaries have gone unpaid, or partially paid. Zakir said:

"The real scenery of the field, some companies give S$100. Some companies no give. Some companies S$70. Some companies give S$200, S$300.

This is in spite of the waiver and S$750 rebate on the Foreign Worker Levy (FWL) that the government gave to employers for each one of their S Pass and Work Permit holders in April, as part of the Solidarity Budget.

The waiver and rebate (which was subsequently reduced to S$375 in June) were extended to December and September 2020, respectively.

MOM says that it "encourage[s]" employers to continue to pay their foreign employees their prevailing wages, even if the workers are unable to work full-time.

Many migrant workers' families back home are aware of the Singapore government's announcement about the rebates and assume that the migrant worker is receiving S$750 per month, said Zakir.

This miscommunication has caused conflict, and thus mental stress, for the migrant workers, Zakir said:

"When they talk to the family, they have the conflict and they cannot find the trust, you know? Trust who, government? Or trust who, the husband? Trust who, the brother?

They say, 'Hey, what are you talking? Government say S$750, you say S$100. What are you talking? Where is the other money? How you have spent the money?'"

Wang is luckier in that respect — his employer had been paying him S$750 from April, up until his dormitory was cleared in August.

While S$750 is enough for his personal upkeep, he does not have enough to send back home, said Wang, who used to earn up to S$3,000 per month before Covid-19.

Stress translated into physical pain: Zakir

Zakir shared that the time of isolation has been extremely stressful, and has even translated into physical pain which he feels acutely in his neck and body.

He suspects that this pain is a result of the "mental pressure" from prolonged isolation in his room with 11 other people.

"Sometimes, when the room inside actually many people — we are 12 people — we cannot go outside. We talk by phone. Maybe out of 12 people, 10 people they talking by phone.

When they talking phone, the sound in the room and the environment become very difficult, that's one kind of mental pressure also."

Wang, who lives at a dormitory in Sungei Kadut, said that being stuck inside for the past four months was "a little frustrating", as the workers had to stay in their rooms and were only allowed to go down to the common areas to walk around.

"Of course there is stress," he said, adding that his family back in Shandong is concerned for him and wants him to return.

Workers just want to go home

Many workers, Zakir said, just want to go back home. He has on occasion spotted workers crying to their families over the phone, insisting that they cannot take the stress and want to return home.

Zakir, who has been working in Singapore for 17 years, said that even he is thinking about going home:

"This one we say in Singlish, I buay tahan — I cannot tahan (take it)."

Wang too intends to return to China, mainly because he foresees that the economy in Singapore won't be picking up soon.

"There are more opportunities in China now," he said.

However, both shared that many workers are unable to go home despite wanting to.

For Wang, the air tickets back to China are four times the usual price and his employer is not willing to spend that kind of money.

Zakir shared that some migrant workers have been told by their companies to wait until after the pandemic passes.

In a previous statement to Mothership, MOM laid out some reasons why workers may be delayed in going home:

"Due to the current Covid-19 situation, migrant workers may face delays in returning home, thereby causing distress as they are unable to be with their families.

MOM has been facilitating workers’ return to their home countries. But as there are various factors involved, such as ensuring that these workers have recovered and have taken a swab test as required by some home countries, we seek employers’ and workers’ understanding that it may take some time for workers to be able to return home."

Mental health support to migrant workers stepped up

MOM said on Aug. 6 that it has stepped up its efforts to better support migrant workers' mental health. Aside from organising celebrations for the migrant workers during their holidays like Hari Raya and the Tamil and Bengali New Year, the ministry said that it is providing resources on mental health well-being:

"We have made considerable effort to keep workers up to date on Covid-related efforts, through daily messages and also materials in their languages to promote the mental health and well-being of workers. These materials encourage workers to identify symptoms of distress, look out for one another, be a buddy to a friend, and know where to seek help.

To reduce the effect of isolation on migrant workers, we have scheduled time for workers to leave their rooms and access common areas, and worked with NGOs to run activities."

Both Wang and Zakir say that they're not aware of mental health resources or counselling support in their dormitories.

The ministry's statement comes amidst a recent spate of suicides and suicide attempts from migrant workers in the dormitories. MOM said that, based on their engagements with NGOs and the ministry's records, such incidents tend to stem from "issues that migrant workers face back home such as marital or familial issues, or unforeseen mishaps in their home countries"

The ministry said that while it has not observed a spike in migrant worker suicides compared to previous years, it is actively monitoring the situation and working closely with partners and NGOs to enhance mental health support programmes for the workers.

Zakir's initiative One Book, One Bag — which distributes books and donated items to migrant workers in dormitories — has been trying to form small groups of workers at each dormitory, to speak with other workers about the mental stress they are under, and how they cope.

So far, they have found that common coping mechanisms include listening to music, reading, speaking with friends.

However, Zakir shared his concern that these kinds of activities are not enough to truly protect the mental health of migrant workers:

"But actually, for how much mental pressure they receive, that kind of reading or listen to the song or see the film from YouTube, actually no cover. Because the load of the stress is more than that."

Next steps — address dormitories' density

As the measures in dormitories slowly move toward allowing workers to gain a bit more freedom over the coming months, the longer-term focus is on how to change things for the future.

For Zakir, the answer lies in changing the policies around dormitories and migrant workers, as the pandemic has shown that the current dormitory system "is totally unhealthy".

On Jun. 1, then-Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong announced that the government will be putting in place a major programme to spread out migrant workers and bring up the living standards in their accommodation.

For instance, the government is creating additional short-to-medium term housing for about 60,000 workers by the end of this year.

For longer-term arrangements, the government is planning to build new purpose-built dormitories (PBDs) that house up to 100,000 workers to replace the short- to medium-term housing. They aim to have about 11 new PBDs ready over the next one to two years.

These new PBDs will have amenities like minimarts, barber services, indoor recreation facilities and will have blocks spaced out to ensure good ventilation. Workers living in the PBDs will also have access to medical care and support.

Zakir suggested that, as the government conceptualises these new dormitory designs, they consult different parties such as architects, landscapers, psychologists, and migrant workers themselves, in order to figure out how to make the dormitories feel like a home away from home for migrant workers, which he said is a form of mental support.

Dormitories could have reading rooms — which Zakir said that One Bag, One Book would be happy to supply with books — and an educational zone, where migrant workers can learn how to use computers.

And while these new dormitories and changes are slated for the next few years, and he doesn't know when these changes might happen, Zakir is hopeful about creating a better future for future migrant workers:

"I think need to think more in the policy area. Hopefully in future, there will be a lot of change.

Maybe I am not there, I will be not in Singapore that time, but I think my fellow migrant workers will be enjoyed that all."

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Top photo via Getty Images. Some quotes have been edited for clarity.