The lower blocks of Westlite foreign workers’ dormitory in Toh Guan

Over three days 30 March to 1 April 2020, clusters of Covid-19 bloomed in three different migrant worker dormitories around Singapore. First we heard about the S11 dormitory in Punggol (sometimes referred to as the S11 dorm in Seletar North) which, as at end of 2 April, has reported 13 confirmed cases. The next day, we heard about a new cluster at the Westlite dormitory in Toh Guan, about 20km away, and whose latest count is ten confirmed cases. On the 1st of April, a third cluster broke out at a Sungei Kadut dormitory, about ten kilometres north of the Toh Guan dorm. So far, it is just two cases at Sungei Kadut.

From what we can see of published data, the affected workers are all Indian and Bangladeshi men.

There are also five cases related to a construction site for the future Maxwell metro station, but as yet, it is not clear from media reports where those men live.

We at TWC2 knew it was a only a matter of time before Covid-19 would begin to spread in worker dormitories, where conditions are nearly ideal for transmission of infection. In fact, we mentioned this risk in a letter to the Straits Times last month, pointing out that workers

…are housed 12 to 20 men per room in double-decker beds.

It gives us no pleasure to be proven right so soon after. We wanted to sound the alarm so that advance preparations could be made. Specifically, we said,

…we call on the Government to announce in advance what plans they have to rehouse workers should clusters break out in dorms. This would give reassurance to the resident and non-resident community.

The 18-storey main block of Westlite Toh Guan. Each window can easily represent 10 – 20 workers within.

In reaction to the latest outbreaks, the Ministry of Manpower got stern, telling dormitory operators that they have to adopt “additional measures” such as

…no inter-mixing of workers between dormitory blocks, with workers “strongly advised” to stay in their rooms and minimise physical interactions, said MOM in an email to operators seen by CNA.

– Channel NewsAsia, 2 April 2020, Dormitory operators required to adopt additional measures to minimise risk of COVID-19 transmission: MOM

Other required measures include safe distancing in common areas, and prevention of massing at the entry turnstiles.

As always, the government held aloft the big stick,

Operators will need to check that workers comply and MOM will take “enforcement action” against dormitory operators who do not implement safe distancing measures, it said.

– ibid

Such statements leave the impression that it is almost all the fault of dormitory operators if infection breaks out. If only workers were confined to their rooms like prisoners, we’d have little to worry about.

But the problem, really, is the rooms. When we cram 12 – 20 men into a dorm room, the notion of safe distancing in the room itself is laughable. All the distancing we do outside the rooms would not make much difference. In fact, getting the men out of the rooms, counter-intuitive though it may be, may achieve better distancing.

Look at the above photo of the Toh Guan dormitory. Imagine workers having to take the lifts down the eighteen floors to leave for work. It would be a fair bet that the lifts would be packed. One infected person or one contaminated lift button may be all it takes to infect 20 or 30 other men over the course of a day, and from there, it can multiply exponentially.

Dormitory operators pack them in because they have to, given the high cost of land in Singapore, and because they can. Our building codes say:

A minimum 4.5sqm GFA [Gross Floor Area] of living space per worker shall be provided. These should include basic living facilities such as living quarters, kitchen, dining, and toilet areas to improve dormitory living standards. Recreational spaces and staircase areas do not qualify as living space areas for computation purposes.

Source: (scroll to Amenity provision guidelines>> Living space standards). (Accessed 2 April 2020).

What does 4.5 square metres per occupant actually imply? To help readers visualise it, below is a schematic sketch of a possible room (actually a suite of rooms) designed for 20 men. Per the building code, the minimum floor area for 20 men would be 90 square metres — and you can safely assume that dorm operators would hew closely to the minimum to keep costs down. The sketch is of a stereotypical room in a modern dormitory based on what TWC2 volunteers have seen in recent dorm visits, and based on what workers have described of their accommodation.

The room is 12 metres x 7.5 metres; that makes 90 square metres, equivalent to 4.5 square metres per person.

To accommodate 20 men, there are ten double-deck beds. It’s quite a squeeze getting that many in, and the bunks are about one metre apart. Try to imagine how close they are. Typically, there’s laundry hanging everywhere as well, making the place feel damp. We can put in three toilets and three shower rooms within those 90 square metres, producing a ratio of six or seven men per toilet or per shower. There’s hardly any space left except for maybe a table and a few chairs.

A room in another dormitory, also run run by Westlite, in Mandai.

It’s our building codes that have created the epidemic risk. Waving the stick at dorm operators will only go so far in mitigating it.

Clearly, if we do not want to face such risks in future, the codes must be raised to higher standards. We believe the floor area per person may need to be at least doubled, if not tripled, and there should be no more than four persons per room.

That, however, is for the future. The SARS-Cov-2 virus is here and now.

The scramble

What measures can we take right now to lower the density and reduce the risk? It would mean moving a significant percentage of men out of the dorms into new residential locations. In fact, this may not remain long a voluntary option. Should a major cluster develop, say 100 men and rising fast, we may have to vacate an entire block for deep cleaning, with all the men going into precautionary isolation for two weeks. But where can they go? Staying will not be an option. Remaining stuck in a room with 19 others cannot be “self-isolation”.

We may be dealing with thousands of workers in such a situation given the size of a typical commercial dormitory. The S11 at Punggol where the first of the three clusters broke out is reported to be capable of housing 14,000 workers.

When Malaysia closed its borders suddenly in mid-March, many Malaysian workers rushed into Singapore to be close to their jobs. When times were good, they used to commute daily across the Causeway from their homes just across the border in Malaysia. Once the border was closed, we had to scramble to find accommodation for them. Reports were that the dormitories couldn’t take them in by much because their occupancy rates were already high.

Thus we are unlikely to have the easy option of moving workers from crowded dorms to less crowded dorms because there are probably none of the latter.

Having to move a few thousand men out of a contaminated dorm would be a scramble to beat all scrambles. Thus, it is extremely important that such a scenario be planned for and adequate preparations made. And the planning must be at the highest levels. A mass transfer of workers is not something that dormitory operators can organise on their own. In fact, an unplanned or poorly organised relocation might augment transmission risk of the virus amongst the wider community.

Where could we move a few thousand workers to with only a few hours notice? If you put your mind to it, it isn’t that hard. It’s been done before, though maybe not in Singapore. In other countries when earthquakes strike with no warning, people are moved into “tent cities”. So, in the same vein, here are some possibilities:

  1. Using canvas screens to create separation and private spaces, convert the massive, virtually empty multi-storey carparks at Changi Airport into a sort of “tent city”.
  2. Or use the massive floor space of Changi Expo in the same way.
  3. Empty out army barracks to house the workers. Our national servicemen all have homes to go back to, so they won’t be much inconvenienced.

To be successfully carried out, each of these options requires prior planning and preparation. In the case of (1) and (2), cots and canvas screens have to be found, and portaloos and showers have to be put in place. Catering will need to be arranged — but hey, there should be an underutilised flight kitchen nearby. As for option (3) beds and bathroom facilities will already be in place but there will be security concerns and these need to be thought through and dealt with.

We hope it doesn’t come to any of this, but we must be ready, both for a major cluster developing and for any future epidemic. We shouldn’t let ourselves be caught in such a tight spot ever again.

Our building codes must be improved. Better accommodation for workers is not just for the sake of workers. It means better health security for everybody else when we do not have sub-populations who are so at risk, and whose living conditions can make for explosive infection spread. Migrant workers don’t stay inside dorms all the time. They come out to work, very often amongst us or alongside us. If we want protection from disease, we must protect them too.