This is a continuation of the story from Part 1, about twenty men locked in a room. The door had been locked from the outside. By the end of Tuesday 21 April 2020, they had been moved to another room and the police had come.
The next morning (Wednesday, 22 April 2020), the headline of the story in TodayOnline read: “Foreign worker dorm manager locks close contacts of Covid-19 case in room”.
The newspaper reported:
Speaking to TODAY, the 35-year-old manager of Joylicious dormitory at 11 Tuas Avenue 10 who wanted to be known only as Mr Thng said: “We have no choice but to play it safe. I have 800 workers to take care of here, and they have 800 plus families to answer to. (We can’t allow) one black sheep to cause this whole thing (to spin out of control).”
Further down the story,
The reason the men remained locked in the room was that the dormitory’s management needed time to prepare a new space on another floor for the workers to stay in, this time with a toilet attached, unlike the previous room, said Mr Thng.
Header picture in the story in TodayOnline, 22 April 2020
The photograph accompanying the story (shown above) was captioned: “A photograph supplied by the employer of foreign workers at Joylicious dormitory at 11 Tuas Avenue 10 who were locked in a different room for 24 hours after a roommate tested postive to Covid-10 on April 20, 2020. The photo shows their new room, said the employer, V Spec Engineering & Supplies.” At the bottom right, the photo was timestamped “2020/4/21 14:18”.
(The header picture at the very top of the article shows their old room.)
The new room is shockingly basic. Couldn’t they even have moved their beds from one room to the other? And their lockers too, without which how will their valuables be secure while they sleep? This is a scene out of the Middle Ages.
And here’s the thing: the photograph is stated as having been supplied by the employer, VSpec Engineering, to the newspaper. Despite the below-basic condition of the accommodation for the men, the employer does not seem to be embarrassed at all about it. It speaks a lot about management’s attitude towards employee welfare in these difficult times.
Were there no quarantine facilities at Joylicious dorm?
It is interesting to note that according to the then-Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin, speaking at the second reading of the Foreign Employee Dormitories Bill in Parliament on 20 January 2015, licensed dormitories were supposed to have quarantine facilities at the ready. Tan said,
I mentioned earlier that the Commissioner for Foreign Employee Dormitories will be able to impose conditions which licensed dormitories must comply with. Let me provide some examples of the conditions we will be imposing. These have been formulated in consultation with all relevant Government agencies; and informed by MPs, who have worked with us on foreign worker issues.
One example is that operators must develop quarantine plans, in the event of an infectious disease outbreak, and provide sufficient sick bay facilities, based on guidelines set by the Ministry of Health. Another is to require operators to establish Emergency Response Plans in consultation with SCDF and the Police to deal with fires or other potential public order incidents.
Yet, when we look at the actual legislation, now named the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act (FEDA), there is no specific mention of quarantine facilities. The closest would be Section 11 of the Act which says that in granting a licence, the authorities may impose conditions, among which includes “to prepare to deal with any public emergency”.
Thinking that perhaps the details may be in subsidiary legislation, we checked the Foreign Employee Dormitories Regulations 2015 (accessed 25 April 2020) but we could find no reference to quarantine facilities either.
[This paragraph amended on 28 April 2020] While it is uncertain what standards are being imposed on licensed dormitories regarding quarantine facilities, in the case of Joylicious, they may not even be a licensed dormitory under FEDA. FEDA licences are only for dorms with at least 1,000 beds, whereas Joylicious is reported to have 800. This then raises an altogether bigger questions: who regulates standards in dorms like Joylicious? What legislation covers them?
Even if there was no obligation in law to have quarantine facilities at the ready, it is worthwhile recalling that we’re now three weeks after the first cluster of Covid-19 cases appeared in a foreign worker dormitory. The risk of similar clusters appearing in all other dorms is well known. Why did Joylicious not develop contingency plans and equip out a quarantine area in advance?
V Spec defends its actions to the media
Coming back to the story in TodayOnline, it then quoted the men’s employer:
Speaking to TODAY, V Spec defended the dormitory’s actions on Monday, stating that it would not have made sense to allow the workers from the room which they had shared with the infected worker to roam around freely at the dormitory, when it was clear that they are close contacts of the confirmed case.
The infected worker, who is a Chinese national, was sent to the hospital at about 8pm on April 18 after developing a fever, the firm said.
Ms Wong told TODAY: “Don’t tell me your colleague got virus, you still go and walk around? Cannot be what! For the sake of every man at the dorm, we as an employer told them not to go around. For goodness’ sake, it is only temporary.”
The 51-year-old added that two Bangladeshi workers were causing trouble, by requesting to use the toilet every half hour. Allowing them access to the toilet would mean that dormitory staff would have to ensure that the common toilet was cleared of other occupants before letting them enter.
TodayOnline reached TWC2’s Ethan Guo for comment.
After TWC2’s initial post over the men being locked up since April 17 was disputed, its general manager Ethan Guo later told TODAY that the workers were “wrongfully confined” for more than 24 hours at least.
This was the information gathered by one of its volunteers who verified with a worker that he and his peers were locked in from 10.16am on Monday till 11am on Tuesday at the very least.
TODAY tried reaching out to the worker who made the distress call to get the facts straight, but he declined to be interviewed for fear of retaliation.
Responding to the dormitory’s explanations, Mr Guo said: “That still doesn’t make it right, right? It’s just like a prison cell. Even prison cells have got intercoms for emergencies. What are these workers going to do if there is a fire and they need to get out quickly?”
Clearly, TodayOnline’s story substantiated the core of our allegations through the dorm manager’s own words — that the men were locked inside a room. This was reckless to life and safety in the extreme.
Nonetheless, we still had the letter from V Spec Engineering & Supplies to deal with, with its implied threat of legal action. And, a few days later, comments by the Ministry of Manpower too.
27 April 2020: The men have been served quarantine orders and moved to Holiday Inn Express.