On 13 April 2020, cases of Covid-19 among work permit holders crossed the 50-percent mark to become the majority of Covid-19 cases in Singapore, when they make up only about one million persons out of nearly six million on the island and even though they tend to be the younger, healthier adults too. The table below shows the cumulative cases as at 12 and 13 April when the 50% point was crossed.
Within a matter of days, the number of migrant workers with a Covid-19 infection has soared to the point where they make up over half of the total number of people infected in Singapore. Above all, this has been due to the rapid spread of infection in dormitory accommodation.
At present, attention is rightly focused on how to contain the spread of the virus, and to support those who have fallen ill, but this should also be a time for learning lessons and thinking ahead.
Many people look forward to a return to normal, but what has happened in the past few weeks should mean that Singapore aims to establish a new normal.
Many citizens have been appalled to discover the conditions in which male migrant workers are accommodated. A radical upgrading of male migrant worker accommodation is called for, not only to prevent the rapid spread of any future infection among the workers, but as a matter of basic respect for their humanity.
There should also finally be an end to the transportation of workers to and from their workplaces in the back of trucks: they should be transported in minivans provided with safety belts or coaches with proper seating.
Many workers are deterred from seeking medical attention out of fear of loss of pay or worse, that their employers might fire and repatriate them. Objectionable at any time, this becomes potentially catastrophic at a time when there is a serious outbreak of an infectious disease. Workers need to be assured that they have a right to seek medical attention when they feel they need it, and they need to be protected against victimization by being allowed the opportunity and time to seek an alternative employer without returning home in the meantime.
Finally, though we hear many tributes to the workers who have done so much to build. Singapore, there is no doubt that they would be pleased for this appreciation to be expressed in higher pay. It is time to make a serious effort to raise basic pay levels, just as an effort was made to raise the pay of Singaporean cleaners above $1000 a month.
Let’s make the disaster of the coronavirus outbreak a new starting point for a comprehensive overhaul of Singapore’s practices towards migrant workers that recognizes our common humanity and proceeds from the belief that we should not expect others to accept conditions of living and working that we could never accept for ourselves.