Quarantine and testing

1.0      Confinement en masse in dormitories is a risky strategy. Relocation of workers, while it has begun, must not be just scratching at the fringes, but must be bold enough to make a big difference to the density of the dorms. Workers must also be tested before they are moved. At 2,900 tests a day, this testing rate is not equal to the challenge.

1.1       Transient Workers Count Too notes with concern that as of Tuesday, 7 April, three purpose-built dormitories housing about 24,000 foreign workers have been put under quarantine. Over a hundred workers from among them have tested positive for Covid-19.

1.2       As is now common knowledge, these dorms are designed for very high density. Social distancing is impossible with many workers sharing a room.

1.3       TWC2 recalls earlier news reports when a cruise ship with mostly uninfected passengers were kept in quarantine. What started as a few cases on board soon ballooned to many more over about fourteen days, even when passengers were confined to their rooms. Though selected passengers were taken off the ship when symptoms developed, this seemed too little too late, unable to prevent further transmission on board. There have been criticisms of such a strategy of quarantining large numbers together.

1.4       TWC2 is concerned that quarantining entire dorms en masse is a similarly risky strategy. When social distancing in dorm rooms with 12 – 20 men per room is effectively impossible, should one worker in a room be infected – and he could be asymptomatic — the repeated contact he has with his roommates because of confinement would heighten the risk to his mates. The infection rate in the dorm could increase dramatically.

1.5       We also note a Straits Times report (6 April 2020, ‘Covid-19 tests stepped up to around 2,900 every day’[1]) which, as the headline suggests, is the best current rate of testing. Even if we devoted all testing to just the workers in the three dorms, it would take us 8 -9 days to test all 24,000 workers. We will always be behind the curve at such an inadequate testing rate.

1.6       We urge a massive increase in testing capacity. All 24,000 workers should be tested and the population in dorms – not just the three quarantined ones, but all dorms – should be thinned out to enable physical distancing.

1.7       We note that an exercise has begun to move some workers out, but it is not yet clear what degree of density reduction is being planned. We urge that measures be bold and that imagination should be applied to where else we can house migrant workers for the duration of this crisis.

1.8       Relocating perhaps a hundred thousand workers is no doubt a daunting task, but Singapore has resources and its government is famed for commandeering resources to meet big challenges. Now is the time to rise to the occasion: fit out empty buildings, e.g. abandoned HDB or other structures waiting to be demolished, etc. Rig up temporary accommodations in tents on empty land or carparks, use army barracks or requisition all other hotels. This can’t be delivered overnight but if an all-out effort is not started now, we’ll only have a bigger problem to deal with later.

Concerns and vulnerabilities of work permit holders under quarantine.

2.0      General statements by MOM should be backed up by clear directives otherwise unscrupulous employers may take advantage of ambiguities to underpay or make deductions to salaries. For example, it should be made explicit that meals catered to quarantined dorms should not be charged to workers. MOM should help employers who have not yet paid their March 2020 salaries to workers to do so immediately, even if workers are stuck in quarantined dorms. Laid-off workers should be allowed to stay longer and given the option to find new jobs, including in sectors outside their usual line of work.

2.1       While it is commendable that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is making an effort to protect the rights and welfare of work permit holders stuck in the quarantined dormitories, the reality is that there is a lot of variation in employer attitudes and individual circumstances. While TWC2 believes that most employers will try to do their best by their employees, we must be alert to ambiguities or loopholes that can be exploited by less scrupulous employers. Thus, general statements by MOM ought to be hardened into specific directives with the force of law so that less scrupulous employers cannot take advantage of ambiguities.

2.2       For example, Today Online reported (5 April 2020, ‘Punggol, Toh Guan dorms gazetted as ‘isolation areas’, almost 20,000 foreign workers under quarantine’[2]) that “The affected workers will continue to receive their salaries as the period of quarantine is treated as paid hospitalisation leave, said Mrs Teo.”

2.3       By TWC2’s reading of the statute, the Employment Act doesn’t actually provide for quarantine to be treated as paid hospitalisation leave; it is going to need an emergency directive or by-law to put intent into effect so that the Employment Claims Tribunal can rule accordingly should there be dispute in future.

2.4       Secondly, entitlement to paid hospitalisation leave is only if an employee has completed three months of service. Newly-joined employees may be left high and dry during this isolation period in the dorms. Many would have paid substantial recruitment fees to get their jobs and, like so many migrant workers, be on low salaries. It would mean extreme hardship for them to be ineligible for paid hospitalisation leave, and this gap must be closed.  TWC2 suggests that the directive from MOM should also make it clear that the entitlement to salary (on hospitalisation leave basis) be applicable to all employees regardless of length of service.

2.5       On the matter of meals for workers in the dorms, while it is commendable that meals have been arranged to all workers at such short notice, teething problems notwithstanding, there has been insufficient clarity as to which party is to bear the cost. Earlier statements seem to suggest that MOM will “provide”, but a Straits Times story (7 April 2020, ‘Parliament: Conditions at Punggol dormitory could have been better maintained as it was made isolation area, says Zaqy Mohamad’[3]) reported Minister for State Zaqy Mohamad saying to the effect that “With the foreign worker levy waived for April and levy rebates, employers should be able to continue to pay their salaries and provide accommodation and food” (words from the newspaper’s report). This now suggests that it is only recommended for employers to provide, but still leaves unclear whether employers can deduct the cost of catered meals from workers’ salaries. MOM should make it clear that they should not. See also point 4.9 below.

2.6       How wages are calculated varies considerably from one employer to another. Some employers have a habit of including all manner of deductions, outside of contractual terms. In these times when employers face a downturn, there will be temptation to apply deductions to reduce payroll costs. This will create unhappiness in the dorms and lead to a crescendo of salary cases for MOM to handle in due course. Moreover, by being held in quarantine, workers may feel particularly entrapped when they see deductions being made to their salaries but do not have an easy way to file complaints or get them heard and resolved quickly. It is not in Singapore’s interest to have resentment build up in confined spaces. TWC2 urges MOM to be proactive in applying preventive measures rather than wait for the problem to develop, and issue a clear directive that employers must not apply any deduction that is not already stated in the worker’s In-principle approval when he first started on the job, or stated in any subsequent authorised revision of the terms of employment.

2.7       A minority of employers pay salaries in cash. Quite often, they pay the previous month’s wages around the 7th day of the following month. Since the dorms were locked down a little before the 7th of April, we are concerned that some workers have not received their March salaries. Their employers, not having set up giro payment arrangements earlier, will need help to get salaries to the workers stuck in the dorms.

2.8       From interviews with workers in past months, TWC2 has learned that not all dorms provide free wifi. Some dorms charge for wifi access. Other dorms have free wifi but only on the ground floor common areas, so those confined to their rooms upstairs have no access. MOM has moved many operations online during the circuit breaker period, but unless workers have access to free wifi, this will disadvantage them considerably. As a matter of urgency, free wifi must be made available to all dorms and all parts of the dorms.

2.9       The biggest concern of workers whether in quarantine or not is that with the economic downturn approaching, they will lose their jobs and be asked to go home where there are even fewer jobs. Especially as new workers cannot easily come into Singapore for now, it would be a pity for our economy to lose experienced workers. We understand that MOM discourages employers from terminating work permits, but we would also suggest that should an employer do so nonetheless, MOM should be liberal in granting the terminated worker a much longer stay, i.e. Special Passes extended by several months with job transfer option, so that he is available for rehire when the economy improves.

2.10     Even in the midst of a pandemic, and even when construction or some sectors slow down, there are other sectors in great need of more workers, e.g. cleaning and sanitisation, hospital laundry, food delivery, etc. MOM should be liberal about inter-sector movements of migrant workers, and laid-off workers should be given the option of taking up work in the sectors with an increased need for labour.

Special Pass holders are particularly vulnerable and deserve special attention

3.0       Workers who have filed salary or injury claims will mostly not be entitled to salary during quarantine. Yet, because they are in quarantine and with case handling slowing down, their cases will take longer to resolve and their in-limbo status will be prolonged. Their intensified financial distress needs to be relieved and a compassionate allowance of a few hundred dollars should be given to them.

3.1       Although workers on work permits (i.e. those with jobs) will be inconvenienced by the quarantine, those migrant workers who have launched cases, e.g. over unpaid or shortpaid salary or work injury, and whose work permits have been cancelled by their employers as a result of conflict in their relationship or redundancy, are particularly vulnerable. Having had their work permits cancelled, these workers would have been put by MOM onto Special Passes to regularise their continued stay in Singapore till the cases are concluded.

3.2       Being on Special Passes, they are no longer employees of their former employers, and MOM’s assurances that salaries should continue to be paid through the quarantine period are thus irrelevant to them. No doubt it would have been true even in normal times that they would not be entitled to salary, but in the current situation, we expect salary mediation sessions or Employment Claims Tribunal conferences and hearings to be delayed. Being under quarantine, they cannot attend anyway. Therefore, the effect of the lockdown would be to prolong the in-limbo status of many salary claimants.

3.4       This will likely be true too of workers with work injury claims. Hospital appointments may be pushed back – they cannot go see the doctor if they’re in quarantine — and their compensation claims may therefore take longer to resolve.

3.5       For both groups, with air routes largely shut down, even when cases are resolved, repatriation may be delayed, adding to a long and uncertain wait.

3.6       They still have expenses for essentials, e.g. topping up of phone cards. Salary claimants particularly are, by definition, those who have not received their salaries in full in prior months; their financial distress is exceptionally dire. We call on MOM to provide some compassionate allowance of a few hundred dollars each to Special Pass holders to compensate for an extended in-limbo status.

Financial relief

4.0     While good that the government gives out financial relief, leaving foreign employees out of the wage subsidy is poor policy, when a third of our workforce comprise foreigners. As for the $100 per employee per day support for quarantined employees, routing the support through the employer leaves it open to abuse. It should be stipulated that at least 70% of that $100 should go to the worker in monetary form.

4.1       The government can be lauded for taking aggressive action to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic. Waiving the foreign worker levy for April 2020, together with levy rebates, will help employers keep their workers on their payroll rather than terminate their work permits.

4.2       However, it would be better if the 75% wage subsidy (for up to the first $4,600 of monthly salary) announced as part of the Solidarity Budget were not restricted to local employees. Foreign employees are just as vital for Singapore. They are here precisely because we need them, or they have skills that not enough Singaporeans have. Even low-wage workers would have acquired skills and experience through their years of working here, and they tend to do the jobs that no Singaporean wants to do. To lose them because their employers did not get enough support through this period would handicap these employers when times improve, for they would then find that they do not have the experienced workers they need to resume business at full throttle. It takes a while to find the right employee or to get a new employee up to speed. Having to recruit foreign workers all over again after the pandemic would slow down the recovery and bounce.

4.3       Employers of workers under quarantine will get $100 per worker per day. While the intent of this scheme might have been to defray the cost to an employer of temporarily losing the services of an employee put into quarantine or isolation, in the context of employers of low-wage foreign labour, it can produce some morally dubious results.

4.4       Construction and shipyard workers – who possibly form the majority of dorm residents – are rarely paid more than $20 or $30 a day. So, employers can use the $100/day to pay their salaries and still have plenty left over to pad their bottom lines. In fact, the more scrooge-like the employer is and the more depressed his average salary per worker is, the more he will benefit from the government’s support. There is something terribly perverse about it, for it is that worker, a victim of meagre salaries, who is most in need of support, and it is that exploitative employer who does not deserve our comfort.

4.5       Indirect subsidies, given via employers, have these drawbacks of perverse incentives.

4.6       TWC2 calls on the government to require that at least 70% of the $100 support must reach the employee in monetary form. Ideally, the government should pay out directly to the worker, leaving a balance of $30 to be claimed by the employer, but we recognise that there may be logistical difficulties as the government may have no record of foreign workers’ bank accounts, or the workers themselves have no bank accounts because their employers discouraged them from opening one. But the general principle that at least $70 should go to the worker in a monetary form (i.e. not in kind) should underpin how this subsidy is to be used.

4.7       To overcome the technicality that the employee’s employment contract states a salary that equates to below $70 a day, MOM should require such employers to pay out a special “hardship” allowance that would top up the salary to $70 per day, before the employer can claim the balance $30.

4.8       This is not to say that the $30 would be purely windfall. TWC2 recognises that there would still be costs for the employer, e.g. paying for meals and accommodation of his workforce. However, on the latter point, if we consider the overall picture — $30 subsidy per day given to the employer equating to about $900 a month per employee – it still seems outrageous that workers are crammed into dormitories with only 4.5 square metres floor space per head.

4.9       In other words, $30 per quarantined employee per day is more than enough to defray an employer’s costs. It would be morally repugnant if we did not insist that at least $70 be directly given to the employee.

[1] https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/covid-19-tests-stepped-up-to-around-2900-every-day

[2] https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/punggol-toh-guan-dorms-gazetted-isolation-areas-almost-20000-foreign-workers-under

[3] https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/parliament-conditions-at-punggol-dormitory-could-have-been-better-maintained-as-it-was-made