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What have we learnt from Singapore's largest humanitarian crisis?

Tweaking dormitory standards and donating to migrant rights groups aren't going to be enough to address the exploitation of migrant workers in Singapore.

Given how time has felt so elastic and meaningless in this era of pandemic lockdowns and Groundhog Day work-from-home feels, it’s surreal to realise that it’s been over a year since the first migrant worker tested positive for COVID-19 in Singapore, and coming up to the anniversary of the first dormitory lockdowns.

I remember the feeling of disbelief when I first read the news: the idea of thousands of men being confined to their rooms overnight as the severity of the situation dawned upon the authorities felt almost too overwhelming to grasp. But there wasn’t time for it to sink in: day after day, dormitory after dormitory was gazetted by the government and placed under quarantine, until one day, the government simply locked down all the dormitories — effectively imprisoning over 320,000 men.

That was (and still is) the largest humanitarian crisis in Singapore in recent memory. The scope and scale was staggering, requiring huge amounts of manpower, logistics, and coordination ranging from the provision of food to swabbing and testing. The numbers, too, were frightening: thousands of new cases reported every day, kicking Singapore straight off the “gold standard” pedestal as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases shot up.

That was (and still is) the largest humanitarian crisis in Singapore in recent memory.

Things have calmed down today. The virus is no longer rampaging through the dormitories; although there have been reports here and there of a worker in a dormitory testing positive, we’re not seeing anything like the horrors of mid-2020. This development has not just been received with relief, but also with some sense of pride.

With this, we’ve moved away from the “OMG COVID-19 is on a rampage through the dorms, what a crisis” narrative to the “all things considered, we actually did pretty good” narrative. While even establishment figures might admit that Singapore dropped the ball in the first instance, there are now many who will say that, once the problem was identified, the government really stepped up and we did as well as we could possibly do given the extraordinary circumstances.

There’s also a common sentiment that looks back proudly on the groundswell of public support and volunteerism that emerged during that “circuit breaker” period to support locked-down migrant workers. Crowdfunding campaigns in support of migrant worker welfare and groups smashed targets as Singaporeans opened our wallets. Other people volunteered time, energy, and resources to pack necessities and deliver food to workers in numerous dorms — especially factory-converted dorms that hadn’t been moved under the direct supervision of the government — across the island.

But is this enough?

The outpouring of donations and volunteerism was an encouraging, heartwarming sight, a demonstration of care and concern during a very difficult period. There’s also some truth in saying that the government worked hard to get the situation under control. Plenty of man-hours, across multiple government agencies and state organs, were dedicated to the head-spinning logistical undertaking of testing, contact-tracing, moving workers, coordinating meals, organising response teams, putting together medical units, and the countless other tasks, big and small, that went into getting on top of a contagious virus.

Yet we shouldn’t get carried away with relief and self-congratulation, or imagine that the problem has been dealt with. “We did well, all things considered” is not good enough when the things that we’re “considering” are exploitative, substandard conditions. Even if we did our best in a bad situation — and I’d argue that there was a lot we could have done better (see the next section) — we must remember that the bad situation was one of our making, and that we should never have been in such a situation at all.

“We did well, all things considered” is not good enough when the things that we’re “considering” are exploitative, substandard conditions.

I published this piece in April last year, looking at how the migrant workers’ labour and living conditions created a perfect storm for the COVID-19 outbreak. One of the things highlighted was that the factors that led to the spread of COVID-19 weren’t just about the dormitories, even though there were many issues regarding overcrowding, cleanliness, and the inability to practise safe distancing. It was also about the way in which migrant workers are treated as a separate category of people in Singapore, and often not prioritised — if not outright neglected or forgotten — in overall policy-making. It was also about how there are limited spaces in Singapore for workers to mingle and socialise. It was also about the precarious labour conditions that meant that workers were reluctant to report sick, or were too disempowered to speak up about needing better, safer conditions, at work or in their accommodation.

Struggles during COVID-19

Many of these issues did not go away during the pandemic, but morphed into new problems. In a report produced by the Humanitarian Organisation of Migration Economics (HOME), the NGO detailed the issues faced by migrant workers who had approached them for help.

The majority of 100 workers surveyed in April 2020 reported that their rooms were crammed and that safe distancing wasn’t feasible. Some also said that, even after testing positive for COVID-19, there were delays in being moved out of their room — which meant that all their roommates were at risk, as well as those in other rooms who might still have to share bathroom and other facilities. As a worker told me last April: “I don’t know if [the room closest to mine] has the virus or what, I put [the clothes I need to hang out to dry in the] same place, my friend also puts [his in the] same place, everybody’s [in the] same place.”

While there were on-site medical teams at the gazetted dorms ready to deal with those who tested positive for the coronavirus, HOME noted that access to medical attention was a struggle for others, such as workers with work injuries. “Their relatively stable condition did not qualify them for emergency ambulance evacuation, which was then their only means of egress from the dormitories,” said HOME in their report. “Consequently, some missed several hospital appointments, compromising their care and rehabilitation.”

One of the large purpose-built dormitories that got locked down last year.

Those living outside of the purpose-built dormitories faced even more challenges. When the government decided to put all work permit and S Pass holders from the construction industry under blanket stay-home notices, men were left “without adequate housing, food, essential supplies, and access to medical care.”

Strict safe distancing and occupancy limits for such private accommodation that came into force in May 2020 also created a crisis. As HOME observed: “Many [workers] reported that they were ordered to vacate with only one day’s grace period. These workers sometimes scrambled all over the neighbourhood in the middle of the night looking for another place to stay. Some ended up on the street for days, at the mercy of landlords who seized the opportunity for profiteering—rents jumping about 20%.”

Then there were the issues with salaries. Although the government offered rebates on the foreign worker levy — first at S$750 per worker per month for the months of April, May, and June, then at S$375 per worker per month from July — to help employers with the upkeep and wages of the workers during this lockdown period, steps weren’t actually taken to ensure that the money did go to the workers.

In April 2020, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), another migrant workers’ rights group, had highlighted issues regarding salary payments during the pandemic. They pointed out that the Ministry of Manpower’s advisory was “confusing” and “very difficult to parse”, and allowed employers to cut their workers’ wages by 25%.

In their report, HOME also found that workers faced financial problems: “Many workers were not formally terminated (perhaps due to this rebate), but were left on indefinite unpaid leave, without even upkeep allowance. Desperately clinging to the hope of keeping their jobs, many kept silent, unable and fearful to complain to the authorities.”

What about now?

Today, the situation is much more stable, compared to those panicked, hectic early days of lockdown. Construction sites have reopened, and the men are able to go back to work — a matter of relief for many who were anxious about how long they’d have to go without wages.

But this return to work comes with strings attached. Migrant workers are placed under more surveillance than Singaporeans are — while we’ve been in an uproar about TraceTogether, privacy, and what data law enforcement can get its hands on, TraceTogether and other contact-tracing technology like BluePass has been mandatory for migrant workers for months.

They are also under heavy movement restrictions, in stark contrast with Singaporeans enjoying our “Phase 3” freedoms of larger social gatherings and tentative returns to cinemas and theatres. Changes to the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations made in June 2020 gave employers and dormitory operators control over workers’ movements, except for medical or other essential appointments, or if the government expressly gave permission for the workers to leave the dormitories. These regulations aren’t time-limited, so there’s no telling whether they’ll become permanent.

Once a week, workers are allowed to apply for three-hour permits to leave their dormitories and head to designated “recreation centres” (RCs). According to HOME’s report: “With the considerable travelling time between the workers’ far-flung locations and their designated RCs, this has proved unfeasible. Highly restrictive, staggered slots at fixed RCs do not meet their basic human needs to socialise and relax with meaningful autonomy.”

What’s changed?

In the middle of the pandemic, there was talk of COVID-19 being “The Great Reset”: a chance for us to rethink our systems and institutions and structures, and make use of a moment of great upheaval to overhaul unjust, unequal systems. Even in Singapore we talked about how the outbreak made us recognise the inequalities within our own society.

But once we recognise these inequalities and injustices, what do we do about them?

In June 2020, the government announced that they’d be improving standards for new dormitories housing migrant workers. New purpose-built dormitories — aimed at housing up to 100,000 workers — would be built with better standards than the current ones, with more living space allocated per resident. Instead of bunk beds, there’d be single beds, with maximum occupancy reduced to 10 men per room. More toilet and bathroom facilities, as well as sick bay beds, would also be provided.

These are all steps in the right direction, as is the increased interest in donating or volunteering for migrant workers’ rights groups and initiatives. But it’s not enough.

We’ll never really deal with the problem if we keep letting ourselves think that things are okay, “all things considered”. We need to stop talking about these things as excusable circumstances, or “just the reality of the situation”; we need to drill deeper and recognise structures that need to be fundamentally reformed and made more just and fair. We need to keep running soup kitchens and packing food parcels, as long as they’re needed — but we must never forget to ask why, in a wealthy country like Singapore, there are still people (be they migrant workers or low-income families) who need food parcels and soup kitchens.

This is where politics comes in.

Over this past year, almost half of the migrant workers living in dormitories have been infected with COVID-19. Thousands are being treated as mere units of labour, shifted from construction site to dormitories, and feeling as if they’re still under lockdown. Mental health continues to be a massive problem for workers who have experienced massive amounts of anxiety, stress, fear, and isolation throughout the pandemic. Workplace health and safety is still a concern; especially with the news that there were seven workplace fatalities in February alone. Many of the exploitative conditions that put migrant workers in precarious, marginalised positions persist, proving themselves to be more resilient than human bodies and novel viruses.

Many Singaporeans might not like this, but this is where we have to get political. Charity and volunteerism might be done with the best of intentions, and often are nice and worthwhile things to do, but they can only go so far. They’re short-term solutions, because they’re actually inefficient ways of meeting needs in the long-term. Collecting donations from individuals through Indiegogo campaigns, for instance, is never going to be more effective at dealing with migrant workers’ struggles with exploitation, underpayment and non-payment, than if the government mandated a minimum wage and stepped up enforcement of wage theft.

We need to keep running soup kitchens and packing food parcels, as long as they’re needed — but we must never forget to ask why there are still people in Singapore who need food parcels and soup kitchens.

This is not to say that donating to or volunteering for a cause is meaningless or “not good enough” as individual actions. We all have our own considerations, capacities, and restraints. I don’t mean to discourage anyone by suggesting that their efforts or contributions are pointless. If you have time to spare and want to spend it delivering necessities to people in need, by all means, chip in where you are needed.

I’m also not saying that everything is the government’s fault and only the government’s responsibility to fix. But the government is in a position of power to change policies and laws, and to collect and access data that will inform systemic change — things that the rest of us can’t do. It’s also their job.

We shouldn’t let the powerful off the hook, or imagine that we can make up for lapses in policy and political will through collective volunteerism. We shouldn’t imagine volunteering to be the only form of respectable and legitimate engagement, while sidelining activists as being “too radical”, “too intense”, “too impatient”, or “too anti-government”. We should recognise that the notion of charity-work contains hierarchies and power structures that can themselves be patronising, condescending, or even exploitative, and seek alternative ways of working that are more about building solidarity than about feeling pity.

When we reach the anniversary of the first dormitory lockdowns, what can we say that we’ve learnt from the humanitarian crisis that unfolded on our own shores?

When we reach the anniversary of the first dormitory lockdowns, what can we say that we’ve learnt from the humanitarian crisis that unfolded on our own shores? What will we do to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again? How much solidarity would we have built with the people who have been most marginalised and disempowered in our country?

Our answers to these questions will tell us a lot about the sort of people, the sort of society, that we are and want to be.

I’d like to acknowledge that I’m writing quite specifically about male migrant workers here, but they weren’t the only ones to suffer during the pandemic. HOME’s report also talks about female migrant domestic workers — please take a look at what they found.