Last November, Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan-jin involved himself personally in a raid conducted against substandard accommodation for foreign workers. In a Facebook post, the minister described the conditions he saw as “abysmal.”
I visited Mohamed’s and Bilal’s house before they were sent home to Bangladesh this week – they told me they were crammed there with 28 other workers. I wanted to see for myself how bad the living conditions were, so I hopped on a train to meet him.
Strictly speaking, it wasn’t their house. It was where their employer had put them in.
The single lavatory and bathroom were beyond filthy. Cooking and eating were done on the floor.
“We share bed mats and towels,” says one of the men. As they work shifts, there are never more than 15 of them at home at any one time, except of course on Sundays and holidays, when all 30 of them shower and use the toilet in the facilities we’ve documented in the video above and image reel below.
The crowding and sharing present health issues: they mention anecdotally that if one man picks up a bug or virus, it’s more than likely to move quickly through the dorm. The risk, however, is not confined to them. The house is merely an incubator for diseases that can spread into the general population.
Except for the bunks shown (and a double bed for the company driver), in the other rooms are a line of pillows with floormats that advertise the Singapore Youth Olympics, a nice reminder of how the other two thirds of this city live.
The highlight of my visit, however, were the wall decorations, if you could call them that. They look like blood splatter. Had there been homicide or blunt force trauma here?
“Bed bug,” the men say. And so they are — blood stains where the men have caught and killed bed bugs. Masking tape, they tell me, is the best way to trap them — each bed mat has it skirting along the sides.
This is like a scene from a slasher film.
From the group conversation I had with the men (just 12 of them were in tonight), they said there was a steady rotation of people arriving to stay as other workers were sent home. They were cramped, constantly moving around within each other’s space and living like caged animals.
Nothing is private here — they have none of the amenities we take for granted: warm water, internet access or a washing machine. The privacy that we debate, is a luxury they can hardly imagine. All 30 men have to hand wash their clothes and hang them around the room; it is damp and parts of the walls are clearly suffering from rot.
But today, some of them you see were also pretty desperate. For them, this will only be home for a few more days. Their company has terminated them and they are to be repatriated. As awful as conditions are, they would rather stay than be sent home. See Mohamed and Bilal have gone: 56 workers to follow as company is sanctioned by MOM
Minister Chuan-jin was right, it is “abysmal” — these are sub-human conditions delivered upon men who are regarded — and often treated — as sub-human. Before I leave, one of the men in this dorm brings out a cooking pot — it is the only one in the kitchen. They can’t afford any other kitchen equipment.
Singapore is one of Asia’s wealthiest countries and it has stubbornly resisted the financial crisis to position itself as a hub of Asia’s growth ambitions. But quietly, around the back, the men who are sweating blood to create that reality are living in abhorrent, third-world conditions.
Unimaginable extravagance sits quite comfortably next to unthinkable poverty.
More video: bed bugs