Manpower minister Tan Chuan-jin told parliament through a written reply that about 70,000 workers (presumably male construction workers) live in temporary housing located at construction sites.

Most foreign workers live in purpose-built dormitories but around 20 per cent – or 70,000 – live on construction sites.

The figures were released on Tuesday in a written reply from Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin to Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC), who had asked about foreign worker living quarters on construction sites.

Mr Tan said there are benefits to housing workers at or close to their workplaces, as it reduces the need for transport.

— Straits Times, 9 Sept 2014, Parliament: Some 20 per cent of foreign workers live in quarters at construction sites, by Rachel Au-yong

The full reply by the minister can be seen at

Although member of parliament Irene Ng specifically asked “how many construction firms have been given permission to set up foreign worker quarters on their construction sites” the minister’s reply does not contain any number (of firms given permission) in response to this question. Instead he gave the number of workers living on construction sites. It is possible that MOM does not have the data about the number of firms given permission to house workers onsite; perhaps another ministry is in charge of that.

foreign_workforce_stats_dec2013It should also be noted that the “20 percent” figure in the Straits Times report did not come from the minister’s reply, but may have been added by the reporter. Since there were 319,000 construction workers on Work Permits as of December 2013 (MOM statistics, click to enlarge screen grab at right), to say that about 20 percent of construction workers live on construction sites would be correct.

Moreover, the newspaper said that “Most foreign workers live in purpose-built dormitories.” We couldn’t find these exact words in the minister’s reply either. What the minister said was “A good number of workers in the construction industry is already housed in purpose-built dormitories.”

It is heartening that the minister also realises that in a number of ways, there are advantages to such workers being onsite. He said:

… we also recognise that there are benefits to housing workers at or close to their workplaces as this reduces the need for workers to be ferried to and from their workplaces. This could provide workers with more time to rest outside of working hours, reduce traffic congestion and crowding, and hopefully also enhance workers’ productivity.

— Tan Chuan-jin, written reply to parliamentary question, 9 September 2014.

Obviously however, such temporary accommodation cannot have amenities, and society has to be understanding that workers living in such places will naturally want to access amenities located in city and town centres during their leisure time, as will even those living in purpose-built dorms wishing to meet up with friends or do some shopping.

Furthermore, allowing workers to live onsite is no reason to abandon standards of health, safety and comfort. The minister said “900 premises are checked each year” but this figure does not appear to pertain only to construction site accommodation. It is therefore difficult to relate this assurance to the subject at hand.

MOM should publish on every six months full searchable data listing the places checked, the number of workers found at each location, the employers responsible and observations made about licence, sanitary and safety conditions. MOM should not be carrying out its work behind a veil of secrecy, occasionally releasing numbers that the public cannot verify, expecting the public to take them merely on trust. This does not make for good governance and trust-building between people and government.