The Straits Times recently carried a story about foreign worker accommodation. Unfortunately, it didn’t get to the heart of the matter: the way government policies affect cost and affordability considerations.

The newspaper’s 19 August 2014 story spoke about the rising number of vacancies at purpose-built dormitories. There are about 5,000 vacancies, said the story, though it didn’t point out that these 5,000 are only 2.5 percent of the total 200,000 beds available. This ‘sharp drop in business’ is attributed to the increasing practice of employers choosing to house their workers at construction sites and other industrial spaces, an exodus from purpose-built dorms which is in turn, the story said, traceable to the rising prices charged by dormitories.

Another issue is cost, said Singapore Contractors Association president Ho Nyok Yong.

“The prices for such big dorms keep going up. Some are even charging around $320 a month. That is too expensive,” he said.

But some dorm bosses shot back, saying that employers are not interested even when prices are slashed.

Mr Ken Lim, chairman of Singapore’s biggest dorm operator Vobis, said response was poor even when he reduced prices to $250 a month from $320 as part of a National Day promotion. In recent months, he has also been advertising in newspapers. The company has at least 3,000 empty beds, across the seven dorms it runs.

“I am not sure what else I can do to attract employers,” he said.

— Straits Times, Big foreign worker dorms faring poorly, 19 August 2014 by Amelia Tan

The Straits Times story mentioned that there are currently about 40 dorms offering 200,000 beds for foreign workers. Another nine will be built in the next two years, adding 100,000 more beds. At the same time, more construction firms have been given permission by the authorities to set up quarters on the sites of major building projects.

dorms_shud_invite_twc2Allegations have been made that on-site accommodation is of a lower standard than at purpose-built dorms. It is not possible for TWC2 to say for certain if this is so because, except for rare instances, dorm operators have routinely denied permission for us to visit (which, as we point out in the box at right, is self-defeating). But from what we have seen — e.g. from our rare visits and photographs workers took on their mobile phones and shown to us — the standards vary so greatly both among purpose-built dorms as well as among on-site facilities, that a simple assertion that one category is better than the other may stretch credulity.


Distance and transportation problems

On the other hand, it isn’t only about quality standards. Many purpose-built dorms are located in distant corners of Singapore, e.g. the extreme end of Tuas or Kranji, next to cemeteries in Lim Chu Kang (see pic below) or next to forests in Mandai. Locations aren’t really the dorm operators’ fault; it’s largely to do with land zoning policies laid down by the authorities keen to avoid the political cost of having foreign workers live amongst Singaporeans in our residential areas. Distance creates transportation (and time loss) issues. A recent story on this site Singaporean concerned about workers with nowhere to sleep illustrates the impact that transport difficulties create.

The need to arrange transportation also brings cost considerations.



Cost is a make-or-break criterion for employers, TWC2 executive committee member Debbie Fordyce told the Straits Times. And from the point of view of workers, getting paid is more important than the quality of accommodation.

Ms Debbie Fordyce, executive committee member of workers’ rights group Transient Workers Count Too, said she is sceptical that the majority of bosses will choose to house their workers in pricier purpose-built dorms if they can opt for poorer but cheaper accommodation.

“It’s all about cutting cost for employers. Workers will not complain about living in poor housing too, as long as they are paid. The men just want to earn money and go home,” she said.

— ibid.

Those made to work like zombies shall live with the dead

Those made to work like zombies shall live with the dead

What the Straits Times’ story does not delve into are the reasons behind cost increases. TWC2 believes that a closer look is necessary at these:

  1. To what degree is land tender cost a major factor in the break-even and consequently pricing levels of purpose-built dorms? What role is played by the government in exacerbating this cost factor?
  2. To what degree is the pressure to add recreational facilities to purpose-built dorms adding to their cost structures? In the wake of the Little India riots, there has been much news in government-friendly media about dorms adding cinemas, sports facilities, etc. Allegations have been made that there is a political motivation behind this — that of reducing the concentration of foreigners in Little India, founded on law and order fears. However, the State has denied such alleged motivations, protesting that it is driven by welfare considerations. Be that as it may, the fact remains that adding and maintaining recreational facilities add to cost. To what extent do these additions originate from government direction?
  3. How are government policies affecting the cost and availability of transport? Do increasing road charges, vehicle taxes and the shortage of drivers make transporting workers to and from sites (at appropriate times) such a headache to employers that they’d want to avoid distance altogether?
  4. Costliness cannot be isolated from the question of affordability. Is affordability depressed by rising foreign worker levies? The bigger the amount clawed in by the State in the form of levies, the less employers have to pay salaries and benefits (including housing benefits). Naturally, they will be extremely price sensitive, and will look for cheaper accommodation options. If these are substandard, employers can always rely on workers not complaining, since workers are tied to employers by — yes, you guessed it — government regulations, again. To complain would be to lose their jobs.

Accommodation for foreign workers is not an issue that can be understood without reference to the policies and actions of government, and their cost implications. TWC2 does not believe that a meaningful understanding and discussion of the dynamics can ever be possible without incorporating this dimension.

On 21 August 2014, a letter by Jane Wong Yeang Chui, referencing the photo published in the 19 August edition of the newspaper (see header pic above) was published in the Straits Times print Forum. It reads:

Powerful image portrays workers’ plight

A POWERFUL photo can convey a message that often defies written narratives (“Living at worksites”; Tuesday). The short caption that accompanied it highlighted the living conditions of our foreign construction workers. We are told that the “rudimentary” facilities are just “metres away from spanking new Housing Board flats they are building”.

Employers claim dormitories are too expensive and it is cheaper to house their workers on-site.

I would like to call attention to two points. First, construction is undoubtedly one of the most lucrative industries in Singapore. Second, the living conditions of the workers portrayed in the photo do not differ from what we would find in a typical slum.

The notion that dormitories are too expensive is not justifiable and begs the question of whether or not it is a matter of cutting costs so that profit margins can be even higher – and all this at the expense of the workers’ welfare.

The argument that foreign construction workers are paid more in Singapore than in their own countries is also indefensible: They are working in Singapore and should be treated like local workers.

In world news, we often hear about outraged consumers boycotting companies that make their employees work or live in dreadful conditions. But in Singapore, there has been a lack of response both on the part of home buyers and the authorities to the living conditions of foreign construction workers.

I applaud The Straits Times for publishing this very powerful photo. Without the brief caption, foreign audiences would never have guessed it was taken in Singapore.

Jane Wong Yeang Chui (Professor)