The Mothership article opened with this:

“Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of the benefit of hindsight.”

In a press conference on Apr. 9, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong said that if he had known about how cases in foreign worker dormitories would later “explode” into big clusters, he would have done things differently.

About 11 to 12 years ago, TWC2’s Shelley Thio was in the thick — quite literally as you will see from the masses of Bangladeshi workers surrounding her in the video below — of an infectious outbreak in a crowded dormitory in Singapore. We were alerted to the situation because some of the workers knew of TWC2 and called for help.

Here’s a paragraph from an internal memo that Shelley wrote about what she did as soon as she heard from the workers:

I notified Wee Kiat from Today newspaper.  When Wee Kiat and I arrived at Tagore Lane, the entrance was crowded with angry and upset Bangladeshi workers.  The Police was trying to restrain the men.  Upon our arrival I was swamped by the men and the Police questioned me.

Below is Wee Keat’s story in Today newspaper. On first reading, it can seem somewhat confusing, but in fact it represents the reality faced by migrant workers — multiple interlocking problems all at the same time. The gist of it is that several industrial buildings in the Tagore Lane area had been converted into dormitories, and together they housed hundreds of men, under different employers (some of which were related, complicating the question of responsibility even more).

Some men had work, but a good number of them had been languishing there for up to five months without work. Even those who had work complained about non-payment of salary. There were also problems with food.

Finally, chicken pox took hold, and according to the men, their cries for medical attention fell on deaf ears. Eventually, one man died, and ten others had to be taken to hospital.

Monday, 29 December 2008
Today newspaper

Worker dead, 10 others hospitalised

By Leong Wee Keat

A foreign worker was found dead at a dormitory yesterday, near where less than two weeks ago, 179 workers had been abandoned.

Fellow workers said Mr Md Kamaluddin, who was in his late 20s, had skipped dinner on Saturday and missed yesterday’s lunch.

They told Today that the Bangladeshi national, who had been living :at 468 Tagore Industrial Avenue, was sick with chicken pox for the past week. Singapore Civil Defence Force paramedics, who pronounced Mr Kamaluddin dead at 1.38pm yesterday, also found rashes on his body.

Ten other Bangladeshi workers with similar symptoms — running fevers and with rashes on their body — were taken to Tan Tock Seng Hospital in four ambulances. They were picked up from two dormitories: The one where Mr Kamaluddin stayed, and from nearby 440 Tagore Industrial Avenue.

Yesterday’s incident is the latest saga involving foreign workers in the industrial area. On Dec 15, 179 workers were abandoned by their sub contractor at nearby Tagore Lane.

The dead man lived on the first level of the dormitory, which is roughly the size of two basketball courts. Between 700 and 800 workers live in the two-storey structure.

Workers claimed yesterday that calls made to their employer, Gates Offshoredirector Paul Lee, about the ill workers had fallen on deaf ears.

When contacted, Mr Lee denied the workers’ allegations. He said he had spent $8,000 on medical fees when there was a recent outbreak of chicken pox. He also said a dormitory supervisor goes on morning rounds to check if any worker is unwell.

As for Mr Kamaluddin, Mr Lee said his supervisors told him that the deceased had gone for a run early yesterday morning and was not suffering from chicken pox.

“I have 700 to 800 workers in the dormitory,” he said. “It is not unusual if someone dies a natural death.”

Mr Kamaluddin’s exact cause of death will only be known later in an autopsy report.

Mr Ashiqn Rahmun, who slept in a bed next to him, said the dead man went to bed early on Saturday night without any dinner. He also said that Mr Kamaluddin, who forked out $8,000 to come to Singapore, had been here for two months, but had not been given any work.

Some workers also claimed that they have not been given sufficient food to eat.

They said only two packets of food — containing rice and servings of curry vegetable and fish — were provided to each worker yesterday.

Mr Lee denied these allegations, and said he spends about $60,000 on food each month for the workers.

Meanwhile, about 150 workers living some 200 metres away at 440 Tagore Industrial Avenue went hungry for almost a day over the weekend.

On Friday, the workers had refused to leave their dormitory after being handed over by a sub-contractor to their employer, Tipper Corporation. The workers wanted pay owed to them by their sub-contractor to be settled first before they moved to new lodgings at Kranji.

The workers claimed that no food was provided on Friday night, Saturday morning and afternoon. Meals, they said, resumed only on Saturday night and two packets of food were given to each of them yesterday.

In a statement to Today, a Ministry of Manpower (MOM) spokesperson said that besides being alerted to the death, it has “also received complaints from about 200 foreign workers staying at the dormitory concerning salary arrears”.

MOM said it is investigating the case and added that employers are “responsible for the upkeep, maintenance and well-being of their foreign workers. They have to bear the costs of the foreign workers’ upkeep and maintenance. This includes the provision of medical treatment. In addition, the employer must provide safe working conditions and acceptable accommodation for the foreign worker”.

It also said that those who fail to pay their workers salaries or provide for their upkeep and maintenance are liable to be charged.

Here’s the video that Shelley took as she was led around the place by workers:

One thing we’d like to highlight from Wee Keat’s story. The chicken pox fatality, Md Kamaluddin, was housed with “between 700 and 800 workers” in a two-storey structure “roughly the size of two basketball courts.”

A basketball court is about 430 square metres. Assuming that Wee Keat was referring to the ground floor acreage, then two basketball courts would mean about 860 square metres. Multiply that by 2 floors, and there would have been about 1,720 square metres of floor space. To put 700 – 800 men in that space would mean a density of about 2.3 square metres per resident.

Our present building standards prescribing 4.5 square metres per person is only a shade better than that.

But the bigger picture is this: we have had an experience of an infectious cluster in a crowded dorm. It was in the press too. Our Youtube video has been available all these years. Hindsight was available. The question may be whether we cared to look.

The Mothership article continued, quoting Lawrence Wong:

“The virus is moving so quickly. If I’d known, I would have done things differently. But no one can tell the next step.”

Wong said that it was a very “unpredictable” situation where the virus spreads very quickly.

He pointed out that previously, there have been cases in foreign worker dormitories. However, they “never exploded into big clusters.”

“But this time it happened,” he said.

Alright, maybe one death and ten chicken pox cases wasn’t an “explosion”, but surely one could extrapolate from that. To be scalded once by a few drops of boiling water should be enough forewarning that getting an entire kettle on you would not be a good idea — without having to wait for it to happen.