By TWC2 volunteer Frank P, based on a telephone interview on 12 April 2020, with contribution by volunteer Christine P
“Every day, one person, one person getting virus.” Senthil [not his real name] has been quarantined in his dormitory in the Kian Teck area since 5 April. So far, there have been five confirmed cases of the coronavirus on his floor, including one in his room, where he is confined with 15 other men.
After speaking with Senthil, I fear that he is certain to fall sick unless his dormitory drastically changes the conditions of his confinement.
“They have only one cleaner come in morning to clean the toilet and take the trash bin.” The cleaner sweeps and mops the common spaces, removes rubbish, and leaves. Senthil is worried about the lack of sterilisation. “I also using corridor and toilet, if [other workers] are infected…”
“Sunday [12 April] one person [in Senthil’s room] get the virus. Monday we ourselves get spray [from the dormitory manager] to use to spray inside the room. In the bed, every place we spray the chemical.” The men are responsible for cleaning their own room, and the supplies available are as meagre as the cleaner’s. Mops and brooms won’t kill the virus. Providing Senthil and his fellows with disinfectant after confirming their exposure was reasonable, but if it was already suspected that they’d been exposed to the virus, as the quarantine order would indicate, why not sooner?
“I request to my HR for chemicals…today [14 April] morning, they say they check with dormitory operator.” Senthil has made multiple requests to his company’s Human Resources (HR) department. Either he was redirected to the dormitory management or told to wait for an answer each time. Neither the company nor dormitory management appear to be responsive to workers’ needs, with the result that the men are left wanting.
Senthil has received few promises, and doesn’t trust any that he has received. Certainly not this one: “I checked with my management, they told me they will pay for me salary. Next month only I know.”
The workers are fed by the dormitory canteen, but don’t know if they, their employers, or someone else is paying for the food. “I request my company pay but whether they paying or not I don’t know. They [the company’s HR manager] say they check.”
How interesting that even the company doesn’t know whether they will be billed for the food!
At the moment, he can’t even rely on regular mealtimes.
“Food sometimes very late, sometimes the makan not so good, food quantity sometimes less.” Under normal circumstances, Senthil avoids eating his dormitory’s food because he and many of his fellows don’t like it, but now his only choice is to eat it, or go hungry. Sometimes he opts to go hungry. “For myself I take only coffee and biscuit. I don’t like the breakfast. Food is very oily and sticky. So many people think so.”
“They give breakfast and lunch together around 9 o’clock in the morning. Dinner around 9 o’clock, latest 10 o’clock.” Food is delivered to the rooms to limit the workers’ interaction. In theory this reduces their exposure, but the execution does not convey concern for the workers’ wellbeing.
Waiting for Covid to take them
Senthil estimates that there are roughly 100 men quarantined on his floor. Apart from going to the inadequately cleaned toilet facilities, none of men can leave their rooms.
I ask Senthil what he does to pass the time. “Sometimes I talk to my friends in the room. Then I see YouTube for some business ideas and think about what I can do in the future. After some time I call my family. Then I take lunch around 1 o’clock. Sometimes the lunch is good, sometimes it is not so good. Sometimes I play games on my mobile.”
Neither the dormitory nor the company has provided the men with any form of entertainment, even after a week of confinement. The lack of stimulation is taking a toll on the workers’ mental health.
“Boring and very stressful. People stay inside feeling mentally something problem…Nothing to do, always thinking about something.” Senthil and his fellows know they are in danger of falling sick and losing money, there’s nothing to do all day but wonder when it’s their turn to see the inside of an ambulance.
Phone is his lifeline, but there’s no wifi
Senthil’s main source of support is his daily phone call to his family in Tamil Nadu, India. His father and wife are scared for him. The news about migrant workers’ plight in Singapore gets worse every day. “When everything comes normal, you better come back to our country,” is what the family tells him.
Having sent him to Singapore to be the breadwinner, now the family wants him back. They would rather have his health than the money.
In this situation, wifi i is an absolute necessity, otherwise every minute on the phone with family members is costly and precious. Yet, the dormitory does not provide wifi to the workers. If not for a data plan paid for out of his own pocket and data cards provided by TWC2, Senthil would have no access to entertainment or support.
At the end of our conversation, I ask what he recommends to improve his situation. He has three suggestions, which he’d already made to his company and dormitory management — neither had responded to him by the time of our interview, he says. The three suggestions are: better cleaning, entertainment, and food.
“More cleaning on common areas, they [should] spray the chemicals. I think need more cleaners, otherwise surely everyday see more [cases].”
“They can provide some entertainment in the room. Eyes become very tired already [from staring at screens]. Have to do some other things, like exercise.”
“Arrange a dormitory person to do the shopping for the people.” He suggests that workers can be grouped and a “shopper” be allowed to go out to buy for the group. Currently, something like that exists but isn’t truly workable. Dorm residents can pass some money to a “dormitory in-charge person” to buy for them, but there is no way the guy can shop for 100 men.
Senthil arrived in Singapore only two months ago and has not earned enough to recover what he had paid in recruitment fees. I ask if he regrets coming. He laughs. If he didn’t have to pay the agent fee, he says, “I surely go back.”
If Senthil is healthy when the quarantine order is lifted, he wants to go back to work so that he can provide for his family despite their concern for his safety, and despite the insensitive treatment he has received in Singapore. Why do workers like Senthil put up with these conditions? They have no better option. But why does Singapore choose to put them in these conditions? I struggle for a satisfactory answer.
On 16 April, four days after Senthil’s room-mate was taken to hospital, TWC2 rang him again to ask how he was doing. They are all in quarantine till 21 April 2020. At first, some of the men had varying dates of quarantine but now the dates have been harmonised and all given same date. A representative from the Ministry of Health video-calls them three times a day to check if anyone has a fever. The men are also to take their own temperatures thrice daily.
So far no swab test has been done on anyone in the room of 16 guys.