Protect our migrant workers from Covid-19

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Ever since the first cases of Covid-19 hit Singapore, migrant worker groups and concerned citizens alike began sounding  the alarm about the enormous risks posed to migrant worker populations. Certainly, the Singapore government was implementing laudable containment measures and healthcare policies for its citizens. But, many of us worried that migrant workers would be less protected.Sadly, our fears have come true. Today, a disproportionate number of those who’ve tested positive for Covid-19 in Singapore are migrant workers. We have to account for this.

Fortunately, from as early as February, multiple groups and individuals have been contributing well-thought-out suggestions to mitigate the dangers to the migrant worker community. It is high time to listen to them now.

Current policies and related concerns

In the last few days, the government has announced two different strategies for tackling community spread — one for migrant worker dormitories and another for the wider community. However, the former doesn’t do enough to protect migrant workers and, in some cases, place their health and wellbeing at further risk. Beyond protecting them from Covid-19, we also need to ensure their welfare and security are protected.

Here are some of our key concerns

  1. It is impossible to achieve safe distancing  — which public health experts and governments have reiterated is the most important measure to delay/stop the spread — in current dormitory set-ups, which are overcrowded; There has been consistent evidence of unsanitary and very poorly-ventilated environments in dorms even before Covid-19, and reports indicate the situation is much worse now. This is unacceptable in regular times, and a calamity during a public health emergency. While MOM has promised to step up cleaning efforts, it is essential that this promise is fulfilled swiftly and at all dormitories; 
  2. Despite reassurances, workers continue to report that meals are not being delivered on time (or in some cases, at all) and they are not allowed to go out to get any food even when meals are unavailable; 
    Work pass holders aren’t guaranteed subsidised treatment at PHPCs/polyclinics;
  3. There are inadequate supplies of masks, sanitisers and other essential supplies for these communities;
  4. Fear and anxiety are high among workers, who aren’t allowed to leave their dorms (or their cramped rooms, in the case of the dormitories gazetted as isolation areas). Many feel akin to sitting ducks trapped in a ticking ‘time bomb’. Some don’t have access to accurate information, and others have reported being treated with hostility and stigma from security personnel/dormitory staff. With the ban on workers leaving their dormitories for the next few weeks, this is escalating stress and tensions; 
  5. Employers and others who have tried to deliver food and other items to workers in the isolation dorms have been prevented from doing so. It is unclear why they can’t receive essentials or gifts at this stressful time; 
  6. No measures have been announced for the care and protection of migrant workers who live outside of purpose-built dormitories (e.g. those who rent shared spaces in Geylang/Little India);
    Workers continue to be transported in cramped lorries, which also make safe distancing impossible;
  7. The work and visa status of workers who haven’t been allowed to return to Singapore are unclear. Will they be paid their wages? Will they still have jobs? When can they return? Conversely, there are concerns about workers who have been laid off but are unable to leave Singapore — how will they be taken care of? 

We seek swift, comprehensive reforms

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo has come out to address the issue of poor living standards in dorms. In response to the growing concern among Singaporeans, the Ministry has enumerated their efforts to ensure the well-being of migrant workers.

However, these efforts seem focused only on the two dormitories that have been gazetted, and with the key emphasis being stepping up cleanliness. We believe that a broader, more holistic response to the problem is necessary.

Here is what we need to be assured of:

  1. In the two dormitories marked as isolation areas, repeated, large-scale testing of all workers should be carried out to ensure effective containment, especially given the high probability of asymptomatic spread. This is in line with advice from public health experts, and should be considered in other dorms where clusters continue to grow;
  2. Arrangements will be made for workers to be able to ensure safe distancing from each other at all times (not just at meal-time or recreation time, which are meaningless as long as there are 12 men per room, and 60 men sharing toilets). This will require bringing down ratios of workers to rooms and toilets drastically. Their living spaces also need to be well-ventilated. Many creative and feasible suggestions for how this can be done have been put forward. 
    Workers will receive free healthcare at PHPCs and polyclinics for flu-like symptoms;
  3. The $100 a day for workers in the dorms under quarantine should be extended to all non-essential workers if they are unable to work during the circuit-breaker period. 
    Increased safety and health measures should be put in place. This should include access to effective face masks, sanitisers, personal protective equipment at work, and the provision of buses for transport to work, rather than lorries, so they can practice safe distancing. On-site medical care should be available at all dormitories, not just the ones under lockdown. 
  4. Workers will receive free mental health counselling in their first languages, should they want it. Their ability to stay in touch with their families should be ensured. 
  5. Timely, reliable and empathetic communication with all workers on their quarantine and healthcare arrangements, work/pay issues, visa status, etc, in their native languages. 
  6. Wifi access within their rooms, not just in corridors/common areas
  7. Workers’ jobs and wages will be protected regardless of disruptions to their ability to work caused by Covid-19 (whether due to illness, quarantine, work closures, re-entry restrictions, or other reasons). 
  8. Accessible channels, specially set up to address Covid-19-related issues, that workers can call in to and have handled in their first languages. There should be clear assurances that complainants will be protected. These should be channels that the public can view and hold MOM to account on.

We call on the government to put together a comprehensive and specific list of measures to address these concerns, and allow the public to monitor their effectiveness through giving journalists and independent experts access to observe, evaluate and report on the progress in these areas. It is also crucial at this time to allow migrant workers to share their concerns, and for journalists and others involved in providing for their well-being to report their findings, without fear of censure and retaliation. While managing dormitories and keeping them safe is surely a challenging task, it is important to ensure transparency and accountability while these efforts are being undertaken. Attempts to raise legitimate questions about how others are treated in our society is a mark of concern for them. Government agencies are working hard to contain this crisis and their officers should be respected: they should not, however, shrink from public scrutiny. 

Taking on the costs of relocating workers to reduce density, and of mass-testing, is our moral duty, and they will also help prevent the costs of providing hospital and ICU care for thousands of Covid-19 infected workers.

As has already been evidenced, Singapore has the resources and capacity to ensure high levels of care, professionalism and compassion during a pandemic. When we finally emerge from this crisis—as we surely will—it is vital that we are able to say, with a clear conscience, that we tried our very best to protect everyone who lived and worked in this country, and trusted us with their wellbeing.

Given the urgency of these matters, we hope for a response from Minister Josephine Teo and the multi-agency taskforce for Covid-19 to our stated concerns, as soon as possible. 

The below articles by NGOs, publications and concerned citizens elucidate the concerns further and contain helpful, concrete suggestions:

  1. TWC2 statement
  2. Recommendations by Cai Yinzhou from Geylang Adventures 
  3. Rice Media's piece on key concerns