On 23 May 2020, the Straits Times published an op-ed by Lim Soon Heng titled ‘A floating dorm for workers: An idea that merits consideration’. (It may be behind a paywall). Basically, he proposed building mega-dormitories over the sea, arguing that building over water does not pose the same space limitations as building over land, and thus better facilities can be provided. But he also wrote of the risk posed by migrant workers when they use “buses, trains, foodcourts, shopping malls” and when they “make friends with domestic maids who likewise congregate”. 

He wrote that Singapore needs them “but they present a health risk to the nation”, and yet, “barring the community from interacting with locals would smack of apartheid.”

With little irony, his proposal then went on to say that migrant workers should be kept on floating dorms, presumably so that they do not use our “buses, trains, foodcourts, shopping malls”.

TWC2 wrote in response, and our letter was published by the newspaper on 27 May 2020:

27 May 2020, Straits Times Forum:

Moving migrant workers offshore would be a step backwards

We should always be wary of the “win-win solution” in which one of the supposed winners has little or no say.

Moving migrant workers offshore, as Mr Lim Soon Heng proposes, would indeed reduce the presence of workers in buses, trains, foodcourts and shopping malls (A floating dorm for workers: An idea that merits consideration, May 23).

But is this what migrant workers want – and is it really the best that Singapore can offer them?

The proposal represents what we should be moving away from – viewing migrant workers as mere tools of production with no relation to the general population and no needs besides food, sleep and work.

Singapore has been wrestling with the question of how to offer these workers better housing, and advocacy groups have all agreed that this should mean more space and smaller groups sharing common areas such as toilet, shower and cooking facilities.

This housing would optimally resemble Housing Board flats rather than the present dormitories or military barrack-type accommodation.

The suggestion that workers should be moved offshore is a step backwards, as it ignores the financial security, identity and self-worth of the worker.

In 2011, then Judge of Appeal V.K. Rajah said: “Unskilled foreign workers, in particular, cannot ordinarily seek alternative employment, often have difficulties communicating, are reliant on their employers for appropriate accommodation, have no financial safety net and are therefore especially vulnerable. They are, in a nutshell, entirely dependent on their employers for both their financial security and welfare.”

Greater isolation in offshore dormitories would make migrant workers only more vulnerable to the practices of employers who want to retain them as a powerless, low-cost labour force. It would further encourage the “out of sight, out of mind” thinking that lowered Singapore’s preparedness for the spread of Covid-19 among migrant workers.

Now is the time to build on the outpouring of concern and generosity for migrant workers amid the pandemic. This should bring about improvement of living and working conditions, more space and better infrastructure for workers to congregate and socialise, and more opportunities for them to be a part of Singapore society.

Deborah Fordyce
President, TWC2.

Here are some excerpts from what Lim wrote in his op-ed, in case readers are unable to access the original published article on the Straits Times site. It is more nuanced than it might first appear:

There are more foreigners than locals in our shipyards and construction sites. Our rigs are competitively priced and our homes more affordable because of the thousands of foreign workers in our midst. Because of these jobs in Singapore, more than a million people in the workers’ home towns can have food on their table and provide education for their children. In our small way, by offering these jobs to migrant workers, we blur the line between the world’s haves and have-nots.

That, however, does not exonerate us from the abysmal conditions of some of the housing into which they are herded. To be sure, some newer purpose-built dormitories look pleasant enough and may come with a cinema, gym and sports facilities. But thousands of workers reside in older dorms, including those converted from factories. Overcrowding is normal, and residents have complained of poorly maintained, overflowing toilets and lack of cooking facilities.

The foreign community is a national asset and deserves better.

Further down,

But in normal times, these workers are in our buses, trains, foodcourts, shopping malls. Many congregate by the hundreds each weekend in Little India, the Golden Mile Complex, Orchard Road, Peninsula Plaza, and more – to relieve their boredom, to shop and restock their provisions.

They make friends with domestic maids who likewise congregate in large groups on those days. An infected maid will also infect the family of her employer. While this is not the case in the current crisis, it could be in the next.

Yet further,

Each floating cluster of dorms may be 20ha, providing 8 to 9 sq m of exclusive space per resident. Each has a community hub of more than 3,000 sq m with amenities, such as retail outlets, fresh produce stores, ATMs, vending machines – just like a small-town centre. A module of the cluster may be rapidly decoupled to serve as a quarantine facility.

At any time, if it is desirable to do so, the density can be reduced by connecting one or several platforms to existing ones, like adding blocks to a Lego set.

Further on,

Barring the community from interacting with locals would smack of apartheid. A viable solution has to be nuanced, characterised by more pull than push factors.

A last excerpt:

Floating islands for migrant worker housing are a win-win proposition. The concept offers opportunities to reduce the risk of another pandemic and realise the full value of land. It also provides a clean and healthy living environment for migrant workers, and can be a showpiece to the world in terms of floating solutions.

Even before TWC2’s letter was published, another response by a Joshua Boo was in the Straits Times.

Moving migrant workers offshore distracts from deeper social issues

While Mr Lim Soon Heng’s proposal for floating accommodation for migrant workers in construction may help maximise land use, it distracts us from the deeper social issues this pandemic has unveiled (A floating dorm for workers: An idea that merits consideration, May 23).

The onus is on us, the larger society which they have come here to serve, to address the issues that plague migrant worker dormitories, many of which have become especially prominent with the outbreak of Covid-19.

Providing dormitories with better liveability and higher-quality amenities is possible on the mainland. Moving workers offshore does nothing to materially guarantee these improvements will take place. Instead it minimises public exposure to and, by extension, awareness of these workers and the issues they face. What we should do now is focus on enhancing their standard of living and resilience to future outbreaks.

Furthermore, placing the workers offshore limits their ability to interact with non-floating islanders in normal times. This restricts their ability to widen their social circle and support network, which may have a demoralising effect.

More pertinently, access to non-governmental organisations that assist migrant workers will also be made more difficult. Even a 10-minute ferry commute is vulnerable to factors such as fluctuating weather conditions, which can severely inconvenience workers seeking help on the mainland.

Mr Lim claims that “in our small way, by offering these jobs to migrant workers, we blur the line between the world’s haves and have-nots”. But that blurring should not merely be a question of subsistence. Our responsibility to them does not stop at providing a salary; we need to accept them as part of our community, and take measures to protect and enhance their quality of life.

Joshua Boo Jin An

Then on 29 May 2020, another response to the floating dorms idea was published in the Straits Times Forum.

29 May 2020, Straits Times Forum:

Offshore dorms? Put the humane component in the equation

Mr Joshua Boo Jin An brought up a poignant point about migrant workers in Singapore (Moving migrant workers offshore distracts from deeper social issues, May 26).

He said: “Our responsibility to them does not stop at providing a salary; we need to accept them as part of our community, and take measures to protect and enhance their quality of life.”

I felt similarly when I was reading Mr Lim Soon Heng’s suggestion to build offshore dormitories for migrant workers (A floating dorm for workers: An idea that merits consideration, May 23).

Mr Lim’s proposal seemingly leaves the social aspect at the door.

He believes that a technically and commercially feasible dormitory platform moored 2km offshore will be sufficiently far away from urban centres to avoid stressing urban infrastructure.

The land occupied by existing dormitories could then be redeveloped for high-tech digital industries, which would, he said, “contribute better to the image and economy of this country”.

That sounds like a manifestation of the Nimby (not in my backyard) syndrome.

Mr Lim did, however, refer to the foreign community as a national asset and said it deserves better.

We should come up with ideas to integrate foreign workers into our community.

That would help us understand and appreciate their contributions and concerns better.

While I am sure Singapore has the resources to construct offshore dormitories promptly, let us try instead to include the humane component in the equation, especially because we would not be the ones having to live in those facilities.

Foo Kwang Sai