Further down this CNA story, it reports that 1,109 dormitories and 52 blocks for recovered workers in 14 purpose-built dormitories have been cleared of COVID-19. “As announced previously, we expect all dormitories to be cleared by the beginning of August 2020, with the exception of 17 standalone blocks in eight purpose-built dormitories which serve as quarantine facilities,” said MOM.

Ever since migrant workers started coming down with Covid-19, we at TWC2 have been receiving enquiries from reporters almost every day. We don’t mind; we see it as part of our mission to engage with the news media.

What was unusual was how in the last two weeks, four different journalists posed virtually the same questions. Given their focus on these angles, perhaps they are important enough for us to put our answers here.

The five questions below are a composite of the questions we received, with each reporter phrasing them differently, of course.

Q: Since the peak of the Covid-19 crisis in worker dormitories, what has been done for migrant workers?

The government has been quick in drawing up a plan for screening dormitory residents for Covid-19, reshuffling their accommodation based on their Covid-19 status and returning them to work. It’s not an easy plan, requiring as it does, a massive increase in testing capacity, sufficient spare accommodation to house relocated workers and complicated contact-tracing protocols.

While we are not privy to how the government assesses its own success, from the outside our observation is that it is more or less going according to plan. However, we’ve noticed from social media that there have been hiccups, e.g. no results given to workers weeks after the swabbing, or workers who tested positive being told to remain in their existing dorm rooms, thus putting their room-mates at risk. We’ve also noticed from social media that employers strongly resist having their workers split up and moved around since it would make provision of transport to get them to work extremely complicated.

The contact tracing app that the government requires all workers to have is based on an assumption that all workers have recent models of smart phones and data plans. This is a heroic assumption, at odds with the realities of their low salaries and minimal disposable income, and the simple fact that they have not been allowed out of their dorms for months and months. How policy-makers come up with such ideas divorced from reality is hard to fathom.

We’ve heard a suggestion from officials that if any worker doesn’t have a latest-model smart phone, then employers must provide. I can almost hear the outcry from already cash-strapped employers. Or if the employer were to deduct workers’ salaries for the smart phones provided, the outcry from employees. And who pays for data plans? If the government is going to insist on all workers having the app, then it should be the govenrment that buys all workers smart phones and data plans.

It should not come up with expensive ideas and pass the cost to others.

Q: Yet, the number of new infections discovered daily among migrant workers is still in the 300 – 500 range. Why do you think that is so?

Covid-19 is a disease of density. All the testing in the world, all the reshuffling that one can do accommodation-wise, will be unlikely to stop the disease. Because asymptomatic infection is quite common, so long as we continue to keep workers ten or twelve to a room — even if we have moved them to different rooms — it will be extremely hard to break the chain of transmission.

On 27 May 2020, the Straits Times had a report (“Daily Covid-19 cases in dorms likely to fall below 100 in three to four weeks’ time”) predicting that we would see fewer than 100 cases a day by the end of June. The newspaper cited Teo Yik Ying, dean of the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

June has come and gone and we’re now at the end of July, and the 7-day average for the period 25 – 31 July is 396 new infections per day among dorm residents.

Cumulatively, the infection rate in the dorms, as of 31 July 2020, is 15.27 percent. This rather shocking percentage shows how we lost control of the situation.

The latest plan seems to be to “clear” all the dorms by the middle of August so that workers can return to work, but in the light of these numbers, it will be interesting to see if the plan is realistic.

Why the numbers of new infections have not behaved as Professor Teo predicted is impossible for us to say. Perhaps the epidemiological model used made assumptions about the extent of asymptomatic infections and the effect of crammed conditions that were too optimstic.

Or perhaps it is really a reflection of the high rate of testing as we push hard to clear the dorms. Once the clearing process is completed and the number of tests come down, maybe the numbers will also fall.

However, the plan is to repeat-test workers at regular intervals. If tests produce false positives and false negatives — which is always likely with any test — then new clusters may be discovered from time to time in the dorms through repeat-testing. So long as we house workers densely — which apparently we will for some time to come since Singapore has insufficient spare capacity for worker housing — we can expect a slow burn of Covid-19 cases.

We may then see a stop-start pattern of dorm re-quarantines and work stoppages.

Q: But the governent has announced new standards for dorms, haven’t they? What do you think of them?

Indeed they have, and they are relatively bold. They could have gone for higher standards, though.

For example, the new standard is a maximum of ten men to a room. TWC2 has argued for four to a room and eight to an apartment. Another new standard is 6 square metres per person, whilst we have argued for 7.5 square metres. See our proposals in the article Better dormitories, part 1.

There is a a lot of hand-wringing about cost. First of all, we seem to forget that the “cheap cost” we’re used to is a mirage. Right now, through the damage to the economy from a shutdown of sectors dependent on migrant workers, we’re paying a very high price already. Secondly, one of the biggest cost components is the government’s tax-like impositions on dorm owners, including land rent, as pointed out in Better dormitories, part 2. That can surely be reduced to buffer the cost of more floor space per worker. We also pointed out in that article that giving dorm operators short lease periods forces them to depreciate the assets faster, thus increasing annual costs.

The stark fact is that new standards cannot be implemented overnight. Despite being ambitious in converting unused buildings into additional dorms, it is still going to take us years to make the conversions and to retrofit existing dorms. And even then, we’re not sure that ten men to a room is safe.

But as we have pointed out in the talk The dorms are not the problem, job and financial insecurity remain the biggest problems for foreign workers, even during Covid. Not only are we doing nothing about them, the government is, in many ways, making things worse.

Q: What are the issues facing migrant workers now?

  1. Salary
  2. Job security
  3. Access to justice
  4. Confinement and depression

Salary

Through April and until now, TWC2 has been hearing from countless workers that they have not been paid their monthly salaries. The law makes it clear that whether or not there is work, employers are obliged to pay them their fixed monthly salaries. See footnote 1.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) issued all sorts of confusing statements through these same months which many employers may have interpreted to mean they are released from this legal obligation. A detailed discussion of the mess can be found in this the article Manpower Ministry’s advisory on circuit breaker still unclear (4 May 2020).

A clear-headed reading of the verbiage from MOM suggests this: MOM will provide employers of foreign workers monthly levy rebates of $750 per worker for a number of months. Employers are to use the money to pay for their accommodation and food and what remains should be treated as “salary support”, where “salary support” does not mean a payment to workers in lieu of salary, but a government subsidy to help defray the costs of salary that should remain payable as per law. See footnote 2.

However, many employers, after deducting the room and food costs (say, for example, $300 and $130 respectively) from the $750 they received from the government, gave the balance (in our example $320) to workers in lieu of salary. They told workers that that would be all they would get. Naturally, workers are upset. Some employers gave even less than the balance, either with little explanation or disingenuous excuses.

Job security

Faced with unpaid salary, workers have a dilemma. If they make an issue out of it, they risk having their Work Permits cancelled by an angry boss. Singapore law allows employers to terminate employment of workers virtually at will and foreign workers have no automatic right to stay on to look for new jobs.

Without this right, Singapore has created a system whereby workers mistreated and underpaid by their bosses have to pay a very high price (getting the sack and having to pay recruiters massive sums all over again to find a new job) should they want to file a complaint. Despite raising these issues for years, we at TWC2 have seen little movement by the government to address these exploitative conditions.

For completeness’ sake, we note that, as a temporary provision because new workers cannot currently be brought in, workers are allowed to look for jobs in other sectors  — a change from before when they could not switch sectors. However, this is provided the worker is permitted to look for an alternative job in the first place. Coupled with the fact that illegal recruiters are still involved and charging high fees, relying on getting a new job after filing a salary complaint remains daunting.

The dilemma is unresolved.

Access to justice

Recovering the owed salary is not an assured thing even on filing a complaint. Astoundingly, despite the Prime Minister’s promise that workers will be getting their salaries, made in a video on 10 April 2020 (see below), the actual actions of MOM have undermined the promise and made it virtually impossible for foreign workers to assert their right to their correct salaries. The disconnect between words and action is disgraceful.

To understand how MOM undermined access to justice, one has to first understand how the claim process is supposed to work. In a separate article Post-Covid roadblocks to salary justice (26 June 2020) we have written in detail about the established process and how, post-Covid, it has been broken by the latest (unannounced) policy changes by MOM.

Here, we will just emphasise that if the process (or whatever’s left of it) offered to a worker to obtain justice is now made so costly and uncertain, it represents an effective denial of the right to justice — which should be a fundamental human right enshrined in law.

Confinement and depression

Not being in their shoes, few of us know what it feels like to be locked up in a dormitory. The first few dorms were quarantined in early April and by the end of the that month, just about all dorms were either under quarantine or had measures that were similar to quarantine. This has continued till July when some dorms began allowing workers to go out to work.

But only to go out to work, at specific hours arranged by their employers. They are still not allowed to leave for social reasons. They go to work. They are returned from work. And then they are locked in for the night.

The consequences on their mental wellbeing must be terrible. As it is, we are seeing on social media mentions of suicides and attempted suicides.

No real relief is in sight. MOM has made things worse by promulgating a new regulation that makes movement of workers entirely subject to the whim of employers. We wrote about this appallingly inhuman new rule in Post-Covid law makes migrant workers prisoners of employers (29 June 2020). Even if dorm operators were to open their gates, employers may refuse permission for their workers to leave. How this is any different from they way slaves were held on plantations is difficult to see.

Q: How do you explain this huge difference in the way migrant workers are treated? On the one hand, they are getting free treatment, and new standards are being put in for dorms, but on the other hand, the laws are going backwards over salary rights and confinement…

Policies appear to be incoherent only if we try to see them through the lens of caring. However, a better way to understand the Singapore government’s choices would be to grasp that they continue to see migrant labour from a strictly utilitarian perspective. Our article Migrant bodies sacrificed on the altar of self-praise (3 August 2020) deconstructs their policies, showing how the priority is to protect the Singaporean and Permanent Resident population (what is often termed as the ‘community’ as if migrant workers are not part of it).

Measures aimed at migrant workers aren’t primarily for their benefit, but for the benefit of the ‘community’. If the measures also happen to benefit migrant workers, it is entirely coincidental. In this category would be quick action regarding treatment and improvement of dorm standards — so that members of the ‘community’ don’t get infected.

If the measures have the effect of injuring migrant workers, so be it. This explains why few policy-makers’ consciences have been roused by confining workers like prisoners for months, by denying isolation or medical care when death is not imminent — examples in the article Migrant bodies sacrficed on the altar of self-praise — or by taking away their rightful salaries.

What Covid-19 is showing is not how great Singapore is doing in protecting our migrant workers, but how selfish, discriminatory and cruel we can be.

1. Section 4 of Part III of the Fourth Schedule of the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations 2012  says,

4. Except where the foreign employee is on no-pay leave outside Singapore, the employer shall, regardless of whether there is actual work for the foreign employee but subject to any other written law, pay the foreign employee not less than —
(a) the amount declared as the fixed monthly salary in the work pass application submitted to the Controller in relation to the foreign employee;

And in case of doubt, “fixed monthly salary” is defined in Section 4A as the sum of basic monthly salary and fixed monthly allowances.

2. For local employees, the government rolled out a Jobs Support Scheme in March 2020. The principle behind this scheme was one where the government would give subsidies to employers ranging from 25% to 75% of employees’ salaries. The percentage varied depending on how severely the industry sector had been affected by Covid-19. This scheme was crystal clear and did not undermine employers’ obligation to pay correct salaries according to law and contract. What the government gave was only a subsidy.

By this example, the “salary support” remaining from the unspent portion of the $750 rebate given to employers of Work Permit holders should also be seen as a subsidy. It should not be confused with the rightful salary payable to employees.