Trying to help workers who have had workplace injuries and who continue to need medical care, TWC2 find ourselves having to wrestle with gatekeepers when workers need to leave their dormitories to see a doctor. We highlight six cases below, all from early August.
Getting workers to doctors is made harder by the government’s complex rules restricting workers’ movements to and from dormitories. Our concerns were first raised in a media statement Post-Covid law makes migrant workers prisoners of employers (29 June 2020). See also our article Confinement in dorms: If regulations overreach, change the regulations (7 August 2020).
On 3 August 2020, Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohammad posted on Facebook further guidance, which frankly only added to the confusion. He wrote:
Employers must ensure that their workers only leave the dormitory for work (if they are approved to work), or to seek emergency medical treatment or where required by the authorities to evacuate the dormitory. On all other occasions, employers cannot unilaterally impose further restrictions on workers, beyond the prevailing guidelines issued by the authorities.
MOM has informed dormitory operators, employers and migrant workers of these measures.
Since we have discussed in the above-mentioned article of 7 August the disharmony between what the law says and what Zaqy says, we won’t belabour the point here. Instead, we’ll give some examples of how employers and dorm operators are in effect creating obstacles even when workers need to leave the dorms for medical reasons. This is despite Zaqy saying that “employers cannot unilaterally impose further restrictions”.
It should also mean that dorm operators should not impose unilateral restrictions either. But, as we shall see in the examples below, the reality is not so simple.
Worker is not yet infected, so he cannot go out on his own
TWC2 volunteer Christine recalls a conversation with a dormitory operator in early August as she tried to get permission for a worker to leave the dorm for a scheduled medical appointment.
Christine: If your dorm is cleared, why can’t workers go on their own for their medical appointment? The employer has told the worker that since he is on a Special Pass, he can just show that and go on his own.
(A worker on a Special Pass is one whose Work Permit has been cancelled; such a worker is no longer working).
Dorm operator: Cannot. If he go to hospital then go Mustafa and come back? Who is responsible? MOM directive is all those who stay in dorm cannot go out on their own. Many men here still not kena Covid yet. I also not kena yet .
“Kena” is local patois for getting hit by something. While it’s not entirely clear what the dorm operator meant, it seems to suggest that he will refuse to let the Special Pass holder leave the dorm on his own unless the man has been infected by Covid-19 and acquired immunity.
The dorm operator might have been insisting that the employer provide escort and transport so that the Special Pass holder had to adhere to the declared itinerary, but this would have been too demanding of the employer. He had a business to run. His vehicle would have been needed to transport goods and support his business. To spare a man to act as escort would be to leave his workforce one man short.
The long and short of all this is that between the dorm operator’s stance and the employer’s, a worker risked missing a necessary medical appointment.
Nor is the dorm’s stance logical. If the dorm has been declared “cleared”, then the men would have all been tested negative. So what’s the risk even if the man deviated from the itinerary? Aren’t the precautions disproportionately costly (to the employer) and absurd?
They cannot unilaterally impose restrictions, Zaqy says. Well, in this instance, they imposed enough conditions or remained unwilling, creating more than enough obstacles.
TWC2 president Debbie Fordyce had a similar run-in with another dorm operator, though in this case, the worker she was assisting was staying in a dorm that (in early August) had not yet been cleared. The man needed to attend a doctor’s appointment and another appointment at MOM itself over his work injury claim.
The “Dorm inspector” (we’re not very clear what authority he was acting under) told her that because the man was “Covid-naïve”, he was not permitted to leave the dorm. This was the first time we heard this term, and we learnt that it means someone who has tested negative on both the Swab/PCR test and the serology (antibodies) test. The term indicates that the person does not have Covid-19, and has not had it before.
The dorm inspector categorically told us that, being Covid-naïve, it’s a strict “No” to leaving the dorm.
But if one looked carefully at the facts, whether or not he was Covid-naïve was really beside the point. Not carrying the virus, the man wasn’t a risk to others though others could be a risk to him. The problem was really a bureaucratic matter of the dorm not having yet been put on the “Cleared” list.
So, this man couldn’t get to the doctor, but — and here’s the irony — even MOM couldn’t get him to attend an appointment at the ministry, because of the rules MOM made, or the discretion applied by the dorm inspector.
Variable interpretation of rules
The above two examples may suggest that, however unreasonable, there is at least consistency in unreasonableness. Not true.
Volunteer Mizue has dealt with four dorms so far, and this is what she reports:
First dormitory: A worker on Special Pass needed to see a dentist for a possible gum infection. MOM officers stationed there told him he would be allowed to leave the dorm to see a dentist if he was escorted by TWC2 — the officer added, “MOM officers respect TWC2.”
However, the worker would not be allowed to leave on his own (e.g. by taxi).
So, we organised for a volunteer to accompany him to the dentist near the dormitory a few days later. The dentist suspected it might be a case of salivary gland infection. The patient was put on antibiotics and is waiting for a follow up check.
Second dormitory: Enquiring with this dorm how a Special Pass holder could leave, we were told it would be easy. Their policy was that workers on Special Passes could leave the dormitory to run essential errands as long as they used private transportation (e.g. taxi). There is no need to be escorted by anyone or an NGO, we were told.
Sounds good, until we consider that many taxi drivers reject workers coming out of dormitories. In any case, do they have money to pay for taxi fares (to and fro) from their dorms located in far-flung corners of Singapore?
Third dormitory: Similar policy as the first dorm. Special Pass holders leaving the dorm for essential errands must be accompanied by employers or NGOs.
We then found another volunteer to take this worker out. He too needed a dental consultation and was later told he would need a root canal operation. He has been placed on antibiotics in the meantime.
Fourth accommodation (a cruise ship): The worker we were assisting was still on a Work Permit. He had an appointment with National University Hospital for follow up for his “post Covid-19 problem” (blood infection, according to him). Since his employer was not helpful, he was allowed to take a taxi by himself to the hospital.
The worker later told us he had to pay the hospital fee and taxi fare. Fortunately he had borrowed some money from his friends.
Danger to the community?
These examples illustrate how MOM’s rules are being interpreted differently from one dorm to another. But even the most considerate interpretation requires the worker to pay money he does not have to take taxis. It has to be stressed that a worker on a Special Pass has no job and no income.
The Covid status of these guys and their dorms give no reason for such concern. Instead what we have here can be cited as an example of group profiling built on official regulations and policy. For no good objective reason, we have chosen to see migrant workers as a serious danger to others, not a lot different from sex offenders or convicted serial killers — they have to confined at all times and, on rare exceptions when they mist go somewhere, they must be escorted. The only thing missing from the rules are handcuffs and stun guns.