A mere two days after the Straits Times featured with some praise two workers’ dormitories converted from industrial premises (see Dorms converted from industrial premises said to be ‘adequate’), the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) banned new conversions within twelve areas.

In a circular dated 14 November, the URA said no new workers’dormitories will be allowed in the specified areas. Nor will any increase be allowed for the number of workers housed in existing dormitories (in these areas). URA said that the present number of dormitories has already “caused a significant strain on existing infrastructure, such as road and/or sewer systems.”

The twelve areas are: Changi South Avenues 2 and 3, International Road, Jurong Island, Kaki Bukit, Loyang, Serangoon North Avenue 5, Shaw Road/ Tai Seng, Sungei Kadut, Tagore,  Tanglin Halt, Toh Guan Road, and Tuas.

Reporting the rule change, the Straits Times described the intention differently from URA’s circular. The newspaper said  it was a

bid to move workers from temporary housing to proper  dormitories, the Government has stopped the building of temporary dormitories in a dozen industrial estates.

— Straits Times, 18 Nov 2014, Freeze on temporary dorms in 12 estates

The newspaper reported that employers are concerned about the impact on their bottom line. It costs about $250 a month to house a worker in a factory-converted dorm, less than the $300 for purpose-built dorms. “Some purpose-built dorms are far from worksites and cost more,” Ho Nyok Yong, president of the Singapore Contractors Association was quoted as saying. “Operating costs will go up for employers.”

Housing for migrant workers converted from an industrial building. A close-up of one window is in the header picture.

Housing for migrant workers converted from an industrial building. A close-up of one window is in the header picture.

Giving a rough picture of the breakdown of worker accommodation, the Straits Times said:

Factory-converted dorms in areas such as Changi, Jurong and Tuas  have been increasing to meet rising demand from employers looking to house their foreign workers. There are about 700 temporary dorms housing some 100,000 foreign  workers — a quarter of the 385,000 low-skilled foreign workers who  need accommodation here.

But such dorms have drawn criticism from migrant workers’ groups for their cramped and dirty conditions.

Another 200,000 foreign workers live in purpose-built dormitories.

The rest live in other places such as shophouses and temporary quarters at construction sites.

— ibid.

Indeed, TWC2 and Healthserve have observed that some converted premises don’t serve workers well, though it is not possible to generalise because we only have access to a few places. In some of the bad ones we have seen, the ratio of beds to toilet and bath amenities were at variance with guidelines set by the National Environment Agency (NEA), which specify a ratio of 15:1.

Toilet Facilities (Ref: COPEH 2005, Section 2)
The following sanitary facilities shall be provided for every 15 workers/boarders or less:

  • 1 water-closet
  • 1 urinal
  • 1 wash-hand basin
  • 1 shower room


We have seen ratios in excess of 30:1. It is unclear how they managed to obtain certification. Perhaps owners squeezed in more beds after receiving certification.

Another concern is that the fire-escape routes are either blocked or inadequate. This is particularly troubling because converted dorms don’t come with canteens and central kitchens, so workers tend to cook in their own living spaces.

The Straits Times also reported (18 and 19 November) that workers from the marine and process sectors, which include the chemicals and pharmaceutical sectors, will also not be allowed to live in public housing from next year. No reason was given for this change. Almost all the workers in these sectors are from India and Bangladesh.

It is a win-win situation for him and his employees from India. The flats are located near the shipyards in Tuas, where the men work, and are surrounded by amenities.

Rent is also cheaper. Mr Thavaseelan pays $250 for each worker a month, compared to $300 a month at a purpose-built dorm.

But this arrangement will end soon. From May 1 next year, non-Malaysian workers from the marine and process sectors, including the chemicals and pharmaceutical sectors, will not be allowed to live in public housing.

“My workers like their privacy in the flats and I save cost. But I have to move them out soon,” said Mr Thavaseelan, general manager of
Tech Offshore Marine.

— Straits Times, 19 Nov 2014, Bosses get ready to move workers staying in flats

At the same time, the newspaper reported that nine purpose-built dorms will be built over the next two years to add about 100,000 beds.

Put together with reports a little while back about softening occupancy rates at purpose-built dormitories, this may explain the tightening rules regarding dorms converted from industrial premises and HDB flats. (However, TWC2 pointed out that complaints about softening occupancy rates are hard to understand when the occupancy rate is reported to be 97.5 percent! See article Cost implications of government policies crucial to question of foreign worker accommodation.)

One can speculate that the authorities may be concerned that their aim to have private operators build nine more dormitories and to push migrant workers into these may be jeopardised by employer preference for converted dorms for cost or other reasons. New investors might have been telling the government that unless a higher occupancy rate can be assured, building dorms may not be viable.

A temporary dorm at a construction site in Seletar. It's quite spacious and doesn't look any worse than purpose-built commercial dorms that the government is promoting.

A temporary dorm at a construction site in Seletar. It’s quite spacious and doesn’t look any worse than purpose-built commercial dorms that the government is promoting.


Our views

TWC2 does not hold any strong views about purpose-built versus converted dorms.  What is more important is that regulatory standards are met, and these housing locations inspected frequently enough.

Equally important is the question of accessibility. The government tends to designate fringe locations for dorms, locations poorly served by public transport. Workers therefore have problems accessing social and commercial amenities, especially as they tend to work long hours six days a week. They only have a Sunday at best. Long waiting and travelling times eat into their already meagre free time. The question of accommodation has to be considered in a more holistic perspective, sensitive to real conditions.