It’s a good sign that a national conversation seems to have begun as to what improvements are needed for foreign worker dormitories. The huge numbers of Covid-19 cases experienced by migrant workers who live in dormitories are a wake-up call. The high density that our building codes allow would surely have played a role in virus transmission, especially when one views it in contrast to the low numbers of non-dormitory workers who were infected.

It’s time for TWC2 to say clearly what better dormitory living should look like.

Our current building codes prescribe only a minimum of 4.5 square metres per resident. This obviously must be increased. Even Qatar has a higher standard, at 6.0 square metres per person. However, Qatar has as serious a Covid-19 problem as Singapore has in its worker dorms, so clearly 6.0 metres per person is not good enough either.

We urge that the new standard should be 7.5 square metres per person.

We also urge that the days of 16 or 20 men to a dorm room be relegated to the past, as should common bathrooms shared by as many as 200 persons, barrack-style. The high degree of mingling this produces has been proven to be an epidemiological danger.

Communal dining rooms are not a good idea either, producing as much mingling. In any case, TWC2 knows from speaking to migrant workers that they generally prefer to cook their own meals to their taste rather than rely on catered food that they have no control over.

We urge adoption of the following design principles:

  • Workers are housed in self-contained apartments
  • Each apartment to have its own toilets and bathrooms
  • No more than 4 persons to a bedroom
  • No more than 8 persons to an apartment (2 bedrooms)
  • Each apartment to have a kitchen
  • Bedrooms must have windows on at least two sides to allow for proper ventilation
  • The apartment must also be open to ventilation on two sides, preferably two opposite sides
  • Sufficient space must be provided for laundry drying, away from sleeping areas, so that sleeping areas do not suffer from high humidity

What would such an apartment look like? Here is a hypothetical floor plan of one that meets the proposed design principles, and at 7.5 square metres per person:

It’s worth noting the following features of the above floor plan:

1. With mostly South Asians living in our worker dorms, we need to provide a place for shoes. Currently, in most dorms they’re scattered around the common corridor becoming a trip hazard in the event of emergency evacuation.

2. There are only 4 beds (two double-deckers) in each bedroom, with 4 full-height lockers.

3. Each bedroom has wide windows in front, and another window on the opposite wall, allowing cross-ventilation even if the door is closed.

4. The back area is actually not a room at all, but more like a broad balcony, allowing wet laundry to be hung closer to the edge, and a sitting or dining area in the shadier part inside.

5. Cooking is on one side of the broad balcony thus permitting easy dispersal of fumes.

6. The entire apartment is open to the air on two opposite sides, thus allowing cross-ventilation.

7. For the 8 residents in this apartment, there are 2 toilets and 2 showers, giving a ratio of 4:1 for each amenity.

8. What isn’t provided is a space for a washing machine. Washing machines often require maintenance; it’s probably better to have a laundromat room on each floor, so that technicians can access the machines without going into private apartments. One machine for each apartment should be sufficient.

Here are three renderings of the above apartment, kindly provided by Frezhman.

View of bedroom for four persons. Each bedspace has proximity to part of a window.

View of broad back balcony; parapet to the left. Toilets and showers in background. Windows at right (they could be louvred or sliding) look into bedrooms, providing good cross-ventilation for bedrooms.

Another view of the broad back balcony showing dark-coloured fridge & cooking area in background.

We would also argue that hygiene standards would be better when workers live in smaller clusters in apartments they can call their own. We all know the expression “tragedy of the commons” — when a space is shared by too many people, no one takes responsibility for it.

Likewise, when dorm operators complain about the frequency of choked pipes and damage to fixtures and fitting, which they often do to plead their high cost base, it too is probably a reflection of this principle. Lack of responsibility is almost to be expected in communal bathrooms and facilities. Our guess is that residents will take better care of fixtures and fittings when workers have their own apartments.

Even so, questions of cost will arise. The fear is that if the minimum floor area per person is raised to 7.5 square metres from the present 4.5 square metres, a 67% increase, cost may increase by roughly the same percentage.

Indeed, building cost will rise, but overall cost is a separate matter. Part 2 will show how other factors play an even bigger role in determining overall cost, and how we can get better accommodation without employers or workers having to pay significantly more.