“Don’t tell people address,” says Kamal (not his real name).
“I promise I won’t,” your writer assures him, honoured to be trusted enough by him and his room-mates to be shown the hovel where they live.
We both know that this is illegal accommodation for foreign workers. But when workers are injured and in conflict with their employers, they have little choice but to find a bunk here in a shophouse in Little India. There are similarly converted houses in Geylang and several other parts of Singapore too. All distressingly bad.
Kamal first leads me into a back alley — it may be 9pm and dark, but the lane’s a hive of activity, being the living room for a few hundred men who live in the cramped houses that line it — then we slip into one of several anonymous doors. “My friend cooking”, he says, and introduces me to one of 26 men staying in the ground floor of a rather ancient shophouse, busy over a wok.
Near the door where we entered is the kitchen. I notice a huge refrigerator and a washing machine quietly whirring away. There is just one lavatory and a shower room. The floor is always wet from the heavy use of the shower.
Kamal then almost takes me by my hand down a corridor to a room at the end of it. “This my room. Eight man stay here,” he announces.
Kamal and his friends’ room is a tiny 3.6 by 4 metres. The eight men occupy four double-decker bunks. There are no windows, but there is airconditioning. The floor is laid over with carpet tiles, some already coming loose. The men have kept the space quite clean, even though the room is cluttered with stuff and draped everywhere with clothing
At the far end of the room, your writer notices something. “Is that a roller-shutter?” Indeed it is, which means this is the front end of the shophouse. On the other side of the never-raised roller-shutter would be the five-foot way and the road. What this means is that the entire ground floor of this shophouse is given over to housing workers. There is no shop open to the front. I do a quick calculation. With 26 men paying $220 a month each, the total rent collected is $5,200 a month. The owner — “Chinese man,” says Kamal’s friends — clearly thinks it more profitable to let out beds than to lease out the entire space as a retail shop.
“Upstairs also have men sleeping,” says one of the guys. If the owner has an equal number of tenants upstairs, then he’s making over $10,000 a month. To get upstairs however, those tenants can’t use the back door like we did. They’d have to use the side front door and the stairway.
There are four other rooms, even smaller than Kamal’s. They have four beds (two double-deckers) each except for one which has six. All are airconditioned; they have to be, being without windows. The place is fully occupied, I am told.
There are clothes, slippers, worn furniture and knapsacks everywhere. Electrical extension cords snake around, ready to trip the unsuspecting visitor. Nothing surprises your writer here. He has seen several of these places and they all look much the same. He doesn’t always get permission to take pictures though.
“In Bangladesh, we don’t live like this,” says one of the men. “Our house have window, and outside have trees.”
Why do injured workers want to stay in such places?
Well, simply because staying with their employers is not a viable option, even though the law says employers should provide housing. Workers fear that their bosses will send in thuggish repatriation agents in the middle of the night to seize them and take them to the airport for an involuntary flight home. This fear is supported by true accounts from other workers who have had the misfortune to be sent home before they have received proper medical treatment or their rightful compensation. In any case, such behaviour is economically logical for employers: cutting short injured workers’ stay in Singapore saves them loads of money. It should be no surprise the practice persists.
The Ministry of Manpower has not been known to penalise employers for such behaviour. A few years ago a senior public servant in the ministry even proffered the view that such repatriation agents “serve a useful social purpose”. One could say that the present situation where injured workers have to live in these tenements, always in fear that officials from building control or public health agencies would raid and shut down their illegal dorm at any time and throw them out into the streets, is an indirect result of MOM’s muddle-headed policies.
What is the solution then?
There is a dire need for better quality accommodation, but rising land costs and the government’s preference for big developpers building giant dormitories foreclose several possible solutions. These dormitories are located in the far fringes of Singapore, and injured workers, needing easy access to healthcare and social services, shun them. The absurdity reaches its peak when MOM insists that injured workers (who are not allowed to work while on Special Passes) travel many miles each week to their counters to extend their visas, without providing any kind of transport allowance.
Big dormitories don’t want to let out individual beds to individual workers. They want to let out whole rooms to companies. Thus, the individual injured worker is denied access to such accommodation in any case.
The thing to do is twofold:
1. Allow smaller operators to build small dorms in tight little plots of land closer to downtown, and insist that they let out individual beds;
2. Liberalise zoning rules to permit owners of existing buildings to convert them into dorms — subject to building standards.
Legalising places like Kamal’s house is essential. Beds are needed; we can’t pretend that these places shouldn’t exist. But these places must also be improved and made safer.
Consider this: All 26 men have only one exit — the back door. But that’s where cooking takes place. What if the gas cylinder exploded and flames engulf the rear two or three metres of the house? How will the men escape?
I don’t fault the authorities for seeing it as their job to raid and inspect, but I do fault them for thinking only in punitive terms, and not bothering to cooperate on a inter-agency basis and work out real solutions to the housing problem.