Through this Covid-19 period, Transient Workers Count Too is in contact with numerous migrant workers stuck in dormitories. Despite their low balances in their phones, it remains a priority for them to stay in touch with our caseworkers and volunteers.

On Monday 20 April 2020, around 9:30am, a TWC2 volunteer received a call from a worker whom we shall refer to as Taraman. As we fear that he may face retribution for being the whistle-blower, we have to conceal his identity.

Taraman said he and his room-mates needed help as the room they were in was locked from the outside. There had been 21 men in the room in a dormitory called Joylicious, but one of them, a Chinese national, having fallen ill a few days before, was taken to hospital on 18 April. This Chinese worker subsequently tested positive for Covid-19.

Taraman confirmed his locked-in situation with a WhatsApp message to TWC2 at 10:16am.

He also sent us a short video clip. It showed a hand trying to open a door. While the lock turned, the door wouldn’t open. There seemed to be a latch or lock on the outside, though not visible in the clip, which was taken from inside the room.

A man tries to open the door, but couldn’t.

At 10:59am, TWC2 emailed Don Chen of Migrant Workers Centre (MWC) about the locked door and asked if MWC could contact the employer to rectify the situation. We received a prompt reply at 11:12 saying he would get the case teams to contact the dorm operator immediately.

A further message from MWC in the afternoon said that the matter had been “surfaced” to the enforcement team through the case team, and assured us that MWC would check on the outcome. TWC2’s understanding is that the enforcement team is part of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

The next morning, we were horrified to learn from Taraman that the door was still locked on the outside. However, he added that the men could call the security post when they wanted to use the common toilets, and a security guard would then come to unlock the door. However, they had to wait for as long as 30 minutes before the guard came.

The room where twenty migrant workers were held. The twenty-first had come down with Covid-19 and had been taken to hospital.

At 11:32am, TWC2 emailed MWC a third time informing them that the door was still locked. Perhaps MWC was busy — all organisations during this period were perpetually busy — and by 12:30pm, we decided we had to go public to get more help. A final check was made with Taraman who confirmed that he and 19 other men were still locked in.

At 13:07pm, TWC2 put up a Facebook post highlighting the emergency. “This is an unacceptable and dangerous way to do things. What if a fire breaks out in the block?,” we wrote.  This post went viral and ultimately reached 120,000 people and gathered 38,000 engagements over the next four days.

Not long after, we heard from MWC again. This time, we were informed that the matter had been escalated to a director at the MOM who gave the assurance that the enforcement branch would act.

Around the same time, Taraman messaged us to say they were being moved to another room, this time a bigger room with an attached toilet.

While at first we thought this was the remedy being ordered by MOM, it quickly dawned on us that it probably wasn’t. Firstly, we had no indication that MOM was on the case despite our earlier pleas via MWC, and secondly a photo one of the men sent to us clearly showed that the new room also had a latch on the outside. Moreover, the men were not reporting the presence of officials.

Latch on the exterior of the door to the new room.

TWC2 would later conclude that the move was probably at the dorm operator’s initiative and not something ordered by MOM. Our guess was that it became impossible for the security guard to be answering so many toilet calls — there were 20 men, after all — each time having to walk up to the locked room and escort the man to the toilet or shower. For the dorm operator’s own convenience, they must have decided to find another room with an attached toilet.

This would indicate that the intention to keep the men locked up was the same. Why else would they need to find a room with an attached toilet unless they didn’t want the men to leave their room?

The police came

We had some difficulty reaching Taraman towards the later part of the afternoon. Reporters were asking us to connect to him, but he was fearful — and rightly so — of future retaliation by the employer if he spoke out publicly. But at about 8pm, he came back online to say that the police had been there around 5 and 7 pm.

In our final post of the day on Facebook, at 20:25pm,  we wrote that, at the direction of the police, the door was to be left open and they should get fresh air. “Hope it stays that way,” we said.

And then a letter came from the men’s employer, Vspec Engineering & Supplies Pte Ltd, with the implied threat of legal action.

See Part 2. Parts