Social Issues

Singapore forgets foreign workers hit hard by Covid-19

By Carlos Sardiña Galache

Bangkok, July 8 (efe-epa).- Packed into cramped dormitories that lack proper hygiene facilities, Singapore’s unskilled foreign workers have been the worst-affected by the Covid-19 crisis, revealing the darker side of the prosperous city-state that votes to elect a new government on Friday.

However, the issue of living conditions of migrant workers, who form a crucial pillar of Singapore’s economy, has been absent from the electoral debates.

The campaigning that ended on Wednesday has largely been centered on the high living cost and the measures to fight the pandemic-induced recession in the financial hub.

Alex Au, the vice-president of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), said these workers make up around a quarter of the country’s 5.6 million people and a third of its workforce, doing the jobs that the majority of the Singaporeans do not want to do.

These foreign workers, according to Au, are treated as economic assets by the authorities but are rarely seen as human beings – a treatment that was more visible during the pandemic.

In an unusual campaign marked by social distancing measures, the opposition and the People’s Action Party, which has been in power since Singapore’s independence in 1965 and is a favorite to return to power, have not discussed the issue that has dented Singapore’s international image.

The city-state was one of the first countries to detect Covid-19 outside China. The authorities acted rapidly to contain the outbreak and its response model was cited as an example by the World Health Organization.

But late April onwards, the virus began to spread in the dormitories that house thousands of foreign workers.

Currently, of the 44,983 coronavirus cases in Singapore, over 90 percent were detected in 43 dormitories on the outskirts of the city.

Some 300,00 unskilled foreign workers are isolated since April. These accommodations house an average of 20 persons per dorm in precarious health conditions.

“Rights groups have been saying for years that migrant workers are placed in precarious work and living conditions that make them vulnerable to disease outbreaks. Covid-19 isn’t the first,” Singaporean journalist and activist Kirsten Han told EFE.

Years before the Covid-19 crisis, other communicable diseases like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, and bird flu had hit these dorm residents.

Au said it was probably impossible to prevent the outbreak but the magnitude of the problem could have been controlled had the government taken stronger measures to avoid overcrowding and carried out tests in April.

However, despite the magnitude of the crisis, Han and Au agree that the situation of the foreign workers has not triggered public outrage nor has it played any role in the electioneering.

“If we had a free press and freedom of information in Singapore, there would be more capacity to press the government for answers and accountability. But it falls within a familiar pattern of treating migrant workers as a merely ‘transient’ population who aren’t part of the community,” Han said.

“I think people might feel sympathy or pity for migrant workers. But we so rarely talk about anything from a rights-based perspective or from a position of seeking to dismantle systemic injustice. There is not enough recognition that the labor conditions of migrant workers are a matter of justice.”

Meanwhile, on June 2, the government amended the law on foreign workers to restrict their movements.

The workers now require permission from their employers to step out of their accommodations.

Au said the law made them prisoners of their employers.

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