On August 9, Singapore celebrated its 55th year as an independent nation with a parade split into morning and evening sections and with fireworks displays spread out across the island. That same day, the country marked another milestone: its 55,000th Covid-19 case.
For the past four months, dormitories housing male migrant workers—mostly from Bangladesh, India, and China—have been the main sites of Covid-19 infection in the city-state. As of August 13, 52,516 dormitory residents have tested positive for the coronavirus, or more than 90 percent of all cases. It’s a humanitarian crisis that has shone a harsh light on the inequalities and injustices in Singaporean society, and reflected our inhumane, GDP growth–chasing politics back at us.
When these clusters were identified in April, the government implemented a policy of ring-fencing the virus within these complexes, so as to prevent transmission to the rest of the population. Reported cases were separated into “dormitory residents” and “community cases.” By the end of that month, all dormitories—housing over 320,000 men—were effectively placed on lockdown.
Singaporeans have also had to endure a partial lockdown. But while our lockdown involved working from home, binge-watching Netflix, and getting meals delivered, migrant workers have been confined to crowded rooms, often with poor ventilation in a humid, tropical climate. “You [couldn’t] stay here for 10 minutes,” a stressed-out Bangladeshi worker told me over the phone back in April. By now, many men have endured these conditions for months, even as the rest of Singapore has emerged from our homes and gone back to dining at restaurants and going to the cinema.
The long confinement has taken its toll. In recent weeks there have been reports of suicide and attempted suicide, and NGOs say they’ve seen a sharp uptick in suicide ideation among migrant workers. The government has left some men in isolation facilities even after testing negative for Covid-19; the men liken the situation to being imprisoned indefinitely with little knowledge of what’s going on. NGOs say some aren’t even allowed to open a window or step out the door. There’s nothing for them to do except worry about catching the virus and whether they will be able to send money home when salaries are being cut and jobs are more precarious than ever.
The end to the dormitory lockdown is, thankfully, in sight. The government says that all dormitories, barring some in quarantine areas, have been cleared of the virus. The majority of workers have now been given clearance to return to work. But even this comes with strings: To be allowed back to work, they’re expected to download three apps so that the authorities can keep track of their whereabouts and their health and conduct contact tracing if necessary. After work, they’re ferried right back to their dorms. Some are being moved from their dorms to temporary accommodation on construction sites, where they are expected to remain until the work is done. Migrant labor rights groups have objected to the new rules stating that workers are only allowed to leave their dorms with the consent of their employers, but the government says that the regulations are necessary to “reduce infection and prevent disruption to [the workers’] resumption of work and activities.” There is as yet no timeline for when these restrictions might be lifted.
Health care workers, civil servants, and dormitory managers have been working flat-out for the past few months to bring us to this point. The toil of doctors, nurses, and other frontline workers—combined with luck and the relative youth of the migrant worker population—has kept the number of Covid-19 deaths low, to just 27. This labor is both vital and appreciated, but it doesn’t erase the fact that the ongoing suffering of the migrant workers stems from a situation Singapore has put them in.
Most male migrant workers, brought in to work in the construction, shipyard, and petrochemical industries, are housed in dormitories, many in industrial parts of the island away from the rest of the population. There are over 40 large establishments built for the sole purpose of housing these workers, and over 1,000 dormitories made out of converted industrial buildings. Even before the pandemic, NGOs had pointed out that these crowded, stuffy lodgings were a recipe for disaster. In 2016, the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics told Reuters that the workers’ living conditions made them “most susceptible” to Zika. A 2016 study also found that living in a migrant workers’ dormitory raised the odds of getting dengue fever.
The Covid-19 pandemic has drawn attention to living conditions in these dormitories, but they aren’t the migrant workers’ only problems. Most arrive debt-ridden, since they have to pay thousands of dollars to agents to facilitate their journey and place them with companies in Singapore. They then work for extremely low wages; the NGO Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) says that construction workers are rarely paid more than S$20 ($14.57) to S$30 ($21.85) per day, which places them in positions of extreme vulnerability, as their employers can cancel their work permit and repatriate them at any time. The authorities and the public tend to see migrant workers as threats to public order, and therefore subject them to surveillance even on their days off. A 2015 article published on TWC2’s website highlights the increased presence of CCTV cameras, police patrols, and fines for littering in Little India, a district popular with South Asian migrant workers.
It’s a system that treats migrant workers not as adults with agency and dignity, but as units of labor that can be shipped in to do “dirty, dangerous, and demeaning” work—often referred to as 3D jobs here—then kept out of sight when their services aren’t required. When the scale of the Covid-19 crisis among these workers became horrifically apparent, many of us said that Singapore had to learn a lesson from this, and recognize that migrant workers have to be treated as part of our community. On April 21, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised migrant workers, “We will care for you, just like we care for Singaporeans.”
The government has introduced a pilot program with new standards for dormitories: Instead of the current standard of 12 to 16 men sleeping on double-decker beds, new dorms will have a maximum of 10 men per room, in single beds. They’re also increasing the number of bathroom, toilet, and sick bay facilities in proportion to the number of residents.
These are steps in the right direction, but they’re insufficient: What’s needed is a much more fundamental reform of the way we see workers and labor in Singapore.
Current local discussions about how to address the so-called “migrant worker issue” have revolved around questions like “Can Singapore really afford to reduce the number of migrant workers?” or “If we want to improve the workers’ salary and living standards, who’s going to pay for it?”
These questions are formulated within a zero-sum framework where treating migrant workers better would come at the expense of Singapore and, more specifically, the wallets of the average Singaporean. Singaporeans—themselves workers concerned about making ends meet in a very expensive country—are thus pitted against other workers, while the narrative obscures the large corporations and businesses, such as large dormitory operators, that have reaped handsome profits.
But it’s much more than just a migrant worker issue. A country that’s sometimes described as “Singapore Inc.” is one that treats all workers as digits in a game of economic growth. Citizen workers have to be taken care of lest they vent frustrations at the ballot box, but they must also be repeatedly told that they have to work “cheaper, better, faster” to “steal other people’s lunches.” White-collar expatriates are welcome for the prestige and capital they bring to a country positioning itself as a regional hub, but politicians openly describe them as a “buffer” that will bear the brunt of retrenchments and downsizing when the going gets rough, even if families and lives get uprooted in the process. Migrant workers—with no wealth, bargaining power, nor path to residency—end up the most marginalized because they can exert the least amount of pressure on those at the top.
Regardless of whether you’re a migrant worker or a citizen, labor protections in Singapore are limited. The government continues to resist implementing a minimum wage that would cover both foreign and citizen workers, insisting that their residents-only and industry-specific Progressive Wage Model is preferable. The unions have long been co-opted, and are now locked in a supposedly “symbiotic” relationship with the ruling party. Organizing and collective action is also risky: When a group of Chinese bus drivers conducted a peaceful strike in 2012 to protest the discrepancy in wages and conditions between Chinese, Malaysian, and Singaporean workers, 29 of them were deported, and those accused of being the ringleaders were jailed.
Until Singapore gets over this “growth at all costs” fixation and shifts toward a more humane approach, even the most diligent civil servant working to improve dormitory standards will always only be grappling with the symptoms of a much deeper problem. At the root of this matter isn’t an issue with an administrative or bureaucratic fix; it’s a political problem that has nothing to do with how hard workers are working and everything to do with how leaders are leading.