Singapore re-examines plight of migrant workers after Covid-19

By Noel Caballero

Bangkok, Jun 5 (efe-epa).- With the rehabilitation of buildings as temporary accommodation and the future construction of 11 dormitories, Singapore is rethinking the situation of thousands of unskilled migrant workers that account for more than 90 percent of Covid-19 cases in the city-state.

The authorities of Singapore, one of the first countries to detect the virus within its borders, managed to escape the first wave of the pandemic with a rapid and effective strategy based on testing and isolation of those infected.

However, they forgot a small section of the population: Some 300,000 unskilled workers, mostly from South Asia, living in 43 overcrowded dormitories and essential to the functioning of the prosperous city-state of 5.6 million inhabitants.

More than 90 percent of the 36,922 people infected with the coronavirus during the second wave in Singapore since April belong to this group.

The city-state began lifting restrictions earlier this month despite reporting 517 new positive cases on Thursday, 502 of them in the foreign worker dormitories.

To reduce population density and improve living conditions within these dorms, the government announced on Monday that it intended to convert old schools, warehouses, and other buildings into temporary accommodations for the workers while building 11 dormitories to accommodate about 60,000 people in the next two years.

“The Singaporean authorities are particularly good at planning and implementing plans successfully. But they fail to think about people, for example, in this case (they failed) to make the dorms more habitable for immigrants,” Alex Au, deputy director of the non-profit Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), told EFE.

Au said the current dorms are more like “small low-security prisons” surrounded by fences, wires, and with numerous security controls and restrictions on freedoms.

These dorms are generally composed of compact rooms housing up to 20 people, where it is impossible to abide by physical distancing measures with practically no privacy, shared bathrooms, and dining room and poor hygienic conditions.

Years before the advent of Covid-19, other viral diseases such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, and even bird flu had badly hit migrants living in these dormitories.

The transmission of Covid-19 was very rapid and it got out of control among the foreign workers, catching the authorities by surprise, according to the TWC2 representative.

As a result, Au added, the authorities, who generally don’t pay heed to the warning of non-profits, collaborated with immigrant rights organizations and accepted recommendations to move the workers to uninhabited places such as military camps and ships to reduce the risk of infection.

According to the construction plan, the Singaporean authorities are aiming to have a maximum of 12 people per room and improve various health aspects.

“The Singaporean government’s current idea is to be prepared for the next epidemic. Decreasing population density, although with 12 people it is not the ideal solution, will be key to a lower impact of the disease in the future,” Au said.

Among TWC2’s recommendations is to create small apartments for eight people between two rooms instead of compact rooms, reduce security controls, and respect immigrants’ freedom of movement.

It also recommends providing kitchens and looking for locations with better access to public transport since, in general, the dorms are located in industrial areas.

During the presentation of the plan, Minister for National Development and Deputy Minister of Finance, Lawrence Wong, appealed to the Singaporeans for comprehension saying that some of the buildings temporarily being converted into accommodations for migrant workers would inevitably be near residential areas.

Wong urged people not to have a”not-in-my-backyard” mindset and focus on the migrant workers’ contribution to Singapore, which has among the highest per capita income in the world.

“In societies with a wide inequality gap, such as Singapore, the upper classes refuse to mingle with the poor,” said the activist about potential racial tensions.

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