By the time a foreign worker comes to Transient Workers Count Too seeking help, he most likely would have been kicked out of company-provided accommodation. For many of the men we help, shelter is a cramped, stuffy room in  tenement housing — that’s if they are lucky enough or rich enough to afford bedspace in one. Those who are utterly broke live rough, sleeping on park benches or under bridges.

TWC2 seldom sees workers who are still living in one of the newer, purpose-built dormitories. These are the high-density camps that Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan-jin described as “proper accommodation” and a “hospitable and good environment” in his reply to a parliamentary question on October 20, 2011 (see MOM expediting construction of dormitories, says Minister of State for Manpower).

So, when your correspondent met Chukur (not his real name) and learnt that he was living in one such dormitory in the Kaki Bukit area, it was a rare opportunity to debrief him to find out what conditions were really like inside.

“How many people sleep in the same room?” we asked Chukur.

“Eighteen” was the reply. There were nine double-deck bunks, and all were occupied. Neither mattress nor pillow was provided. “Bed only kayu,” explained Chukur, using the Malay word for wood.

“What do you use for a pillow?”

“My bag.”

Each man also had access to a steel locker; two lockers per tower. Except for a television set in the room, there was nothing else. No table, not even chairs. There was a bit of space at one corner where men would sit on the bare concrete floor to eat.

“How many windows?”

“Two,” said Chukur. He described each of them as about the same size as a car door. Your correspondent wondered if that made for adequate ventilation. Four swivel fans mounted on the ceiling might help, but on the other hand, the room was also festooned with wet laundry. It wasn’t hard to imagine humidity to be quite oppressive.

Eight such rooms shared a floor. If all the rooms had the same number of occupants, it would total144 men per floor. All of them would share a single wet area down the corridor comprising six toilet stalls (but no urinals) and three shower points, reported Chukur. Three being totally inadequate, the men have filled several barrels with water, so they could wash themselves by scooping from them. There were four hand basins at one end of the wet area.

“No washing machine,” said Chukur, when the subject of laundry came up. “We use pails to wash,” after which the dripping-wet clothes — no spin-dry option — were hung up in hangers near their bunks.

There were several electrical outlets, and Chukur was lucky to have one very close to his bunk. He has virtually taken ownership of it. Others not so lucky had to share.

At either end of the corridor would be the stairs, approximately 1.3 metres wide. “Two man can walk side by side,” was how Chukur described its width. Would they be sufficient in a fire emergency? The five blocks in the camp had varying heights, from six to eight floors, reported Chukur, but even so, there were roughly a thousand residents per block.

Speaking of which, your correspondent asked, “Any lifts?”

“No lift,” Chukur said, which meant that those assigned to the eighth floor would have to walk all the way up to their rooms after a hard day’s work.

A separate building housed the canteen. The food was generally prepacked giving the men the option of eating in their own rooms,  though there were some tables and benches in the canteen itself. Workers had to pay for the food; meals were not included in the company-paid cost of accommodation.

As can be seen from the above-mentioned parliamentary reply by Minister of State Tan Chuan-jin, the state considers such dormitories to be of an acceptable standard. Naturally, there is the argument that costs must be watched carefully, but nonetheless, it speaks volumes about Singapore’s attitude to migrant labour that minimum regulatory standards are set so low. The focus seems to be on keeping labour cheap rather than aiming for happier, better-skilled and more productive workers.

Another aspect about such dormitories is that they are typically located away from residential areas populated by Singaporeans. This dormitory that Chukur stays in is separated from the residential part of Kaki Bukit by an industrial estate. Might it indicate that our town planners have sensed that Singaporeans would rather live next door to factories than next door to foreign workers?

Such out-of-the-way locations often mean that workers living in dormitories have no easy access to public transport. Chukur, for example, has to walk about 10 minutes to reach the nearest bus stop, with no shelter from sun or rain. But at least that bus stop has several mainline bus routes passing by, and he should count himself lucky. Those housed in dormitories in Tuas South have only one bus stop within walking distance, and the route that serves that stop takes at least half an hour to reach Boon Lay Interchange, from where it is another 60 – 75 minutes to get downtown.