By TWC2 volunteer Jiang Haolie

In May 2020, amidst skyrocketing Covid-19 infection rates amongst Singapore’s million-strong low-wage migrant worker force and daily news of deteriorating conditions in worker dormitories, Singaporeans were heartened by announcements of the relocation of Covid-recovered workers to two docked luxury cruise ships at Marina Bay – SuperStar Gemini and SuperStar Aquarius.

National broadsheets painted an idyllic picture of blissful living on these isolation ships, replete with sea views, beautifully-appointed cabins, sun-kissed decks, daily yoga, warm meals in spacious restuarants, and a restful respite from the usual labour on the mainland.

The Straits Times reported (1 May 2020, ‘Foreign workers who recover from Covid-19 moved into SuperStar Gemini cruise ship’)

There are en suite toilets, in-cabin dining and strict infection control and safe distancing measures aboard the ship, as well as Wi-Fi, in-cabin entertainment and scheduled outdoor time.

But reports, phone calls, and WhatsApp messages that TWC2 received from workers on board described a bleaker reality – inadequate or subpar food consumed in isolation, insufficient drinking water, prolonged captivity in small windowless cells, frigid temperatures, and the unrelenting worry over lost jobs, heavy debts and family destitution.

Not postcard pretty

“If you look at this place from a distance, you will think that [migrant] workers come to a very good place, but those who [are] isolated here understand what a pain it is,” one worker lamented in a WhatsApp conversation with Miz, a longtime TWC2 volunteer and member of TWC2’s Small Essential Needs (SEN) team.

Composed of just half a dozen volunteers, SEN has been coordinating provisions of dry food, clothing, and other essentials to thousands of workers in quarantine including the two cruise ships. These efforts complemented other similar organic efforts by fellow NGOs and Singaporeans, such as Healthserve whose volunteers were also actively attending to workers on board the ships.

SEN, set up soon after the epidemic broke to help workers stuck in quarantine, will wind down as the epidemic passes.

The reports of contrary conditions on board only emerged after the SEN team had established rapport with workers who had been moved there. It started with seemingly innocuous requests amidst the hectic deluge of calls and messages from workers that Miz had been receiving daily; Maanav (not his real name), a worker quarantined on board the SuperStar Aquarius was requesting for snacks to supplement the food rations he and a few others on the ship were getting.

Recognising from experience that workers, out of fear of reprisals and being seen as “troublemakers”, often do not report poor conditions and prefer to bear what would otherwise be intolerable for most, Miz suspected that there was more to the story than just a simple request for more edibles and liquids. It was only after much probing and cajoling over lengthy and detailed Whatsapp and phone exchanges with half a dozen workers on the ship did a fuller story emerge.

Three glasses of water per day

Maanav and others he met on the ship were receiving only three small 250ml bottles of drinking water daily. That’s equivalent to three glasses of water, far short of daily needs. Tap water – which they turned to – remained pungent and salty, they said, even after boiling.

Food rations were reported to be unsuited to their taste buds. Quantities were inadequate, with some workers going hungry till morning after the last meal at 6pm as they were previously accustomed to heavy late-night meals after a day of toil. Maanav’s roommate lost 10 kg in at month.

Five men described frigid room temperatures that could not be controlled by thermostat.

Then there was the psychological toll of self-isolation in windowless rooms for weeks on end. Every day, there was just 45 minutes of “deck time” but since workers were only allowed onto deck individually, no real socialising could happen. It was as lonely out as locked in.

Says Miz: “The logic of isolating the men for more than 50 days on the ships is an extreme way of ‘safe distancing’ while they wait for their dormitories to take them back or until other facilities such as hotel rooms or temporary facilities become available.”

All these hardships lay over an overriding anxiety about losing their jobs back on the mainland as the economy sinks.

One worker wrote, “I don’t know when I will be released from this prison”.

The hard work of solving problems

Some things TWC2’s SEN team could quickly provide. We soon developed a smooth system for purchasing the asked-for items (such as snacks, instant noodles, jackets, clothing, and phone chargers) and organising delivery to the cruise terminal. Other things, like drinking water, proved more challenging since the amounts required would be huge.

Various edibles delivered by SEN to a worker, and complaints about food and water

The operator of the ship said the water on board was potable, but this reply wasn’t something we could relay to the men and expect them to accept if their noses and tastebuds told them otherwise. We were also told that requests for more than the three 250ml bottles of water in the daily allotment would be denied and that if workers wanted more, it should be up to their employers to provide. It took us days of further phone calls and wrangling with multiple contacts and authorities before we received updates from the workers that they were now receiving a 1.5-litre bottle of water daily. This was twice the previous ration, though still rather inadequate.

When we set up SEN, we thought we’d be dealing with biscuits and toothpaste. Little did we expect to have to battle dehydration on ships.

These reports coming into TWC2 represented the direct experiences of about 40-50 workers of the 2,300 quarantined aboard both ships. Although those on board were recovered Covid-19 patients, due to isolation and restricted access, there is limited information about the experiences of the other thousands of quarantined workers on board apart from fragmentary reports and contacts with other groups attending to workers. However, we have no reason to doubt that what we heard was representative.

Items purchased and delivered to men on board cruise ships included snacks, cup noodles, milk powder, coffee, milo, lungis, jackets, phones, phone chargers, tooth brushes, toothpaste and water bottles with filters — — as a stopgap measure until the men started to receive 1.5L bottles of drinking water daily. We also delivered donations from National University of Singapore volunteers, which included T-shirts and toiletries.

Naturally, we couldn’t meet the men directly for quarantine reasons, so items were delivered to the security desk at the visitor center at the Marina Bay Cruise Centre.