By Gek Han
It doesn’t occur to me to ask Hussain Monir if his bed came with a mattress until a senior volunteer does (beds and mattresses go together, right?). Nothing, Monir says. Not quite believing my ears, I tap the table to ask if his bed was as hard, and he says yes. To which I ask, why didn’t you buy one? His reply: “No money, how to buy?”
Monir draws me a picture of the dormitory he was staying in while he was still working, before his accident: a four-level building in Sungei Kadut Industrial Estate. On level one is a shared kitchen and recreation space. Levels two to four have six sleeping rooms each, above which is a roof terrace where they hang their clothes out to dry (see telephoto picture below). His room has five double-decked beds which, if it is typical of the other rooms in the dormitory, means there are close to 200 workers living in there. The ceiling fan in the room wasn’t enough to keep the room cool, so everyone in the room bought his “own self fan”. According to Monir, there are “rooms with AC [air-conditioning]”, but those rooms have more people, and anyway Monir could not choose his room.
Ten people in a room like Monir’s would be crowded enough, but my jaw drops when Islam Md Saidul, 23, tells me his room had forty people. Saidul was in a different dormitory, also located in an industrial estate. I wonder how they keep their private space and sense of privacy, especially when they talk on the phone with their loved ones in such a crowded room. Perhaps the roommates are all from the same country? Monir says no. Some of his room mates were from India. I wonder if such a sleeping arrangement is deliberate in keeping countrymen apart.
Was it noisy with ten people in the room? Monir says it was fine, as the lights went off at 11pm, the mandatory lights-off time, military-style. People staggered their waking times as company buses came at different times to take them to work. There would be a slight queue at the toilets — “maybe two minutes,” Monir says. I casually ask if there was hot shower, expecting the answer to be positive (a hot shower should be easily available in Singapore, right?). The senior volunteer laughs, and Monir looks at me, puzzled.
The longer queue was found at the washing rooms in the evenings. There were no washing machines in Monir’s dormitory, but there were separate cubicles for washing clothes. However, at Saidul’s dormitory, workers washed their clothes in the same space they bathe, causing longer queues at the bathrooms.
7pm to 9pm were the busiest hours in the dormitory — people were cooking, eating, and bathing. Monir says he is a pretty good cook. With nine other Bangladeshi friends, they took turns to cook for the group. A grocery van turns up at the dormitory in the evenings, but the prices are higher than at the Fairprice supermarket located twenty minutes away by foot. Most workers buy a day’s worth of food, because there are only three refrigerators, hardly enough for everyone to store the cheaper groceries they could buy from Little India on weekends.
How about after 9pm, I ask, what did people do? Was there some social life? There was one TV in the recreation area, explains Monir, which ten to twenty Indians crowded around to watch the Vasantham channel. There being no Bangladeshi channel on TV, the Bangladeshi workers tended to use the time to call their loved ones (with their own mobile phones), or surf the net if a friend had a laptop, which I guess is most likely a second-or third-hand laptop purchased in Little India.
In general Monir was happy with his dormitory. Perhaps he has seen or heard worse cases. I show Saidul a picture of a mattress, wanting to learn the Bangladeshi word for it. Saidul,23, doesn’t tell me. He just shakes his head to indicate that he does not have the comfort of one. Perhaps it serves only as a painful reminder of his deprivation were he even to make the effort to teach me the word. Are such standards of accommodation acceptable in Singapore? The senior volunteer sitting near me signals that, based on Monir’s description, the dorm is probably legit and meets regulatory standards.
Which only leads me to feel part shock, part shame.
In a first-world-economy like Singapore, shouldn’t basic comforts of a mattress and hot shower, (which are taken for granted here) be part of the deal? Is our minimal standard so low that the dormitory is little more than a cattle shed, packing them in, merely keeping out the rain?
MOM maintains an online list of commercially-run foreign worker dormitories at this link. The dorm described by Monir is not among them. However, this may be because it is a converted factory building, which is in a different category (and may meet regulatory approval) from purpose-built dormitories. A websearch reveals that there are a few dorm spaces in the Sungei Kadut area. At right is a photo that came with a listed advertisement — but may not be the dorm described by Monir.