India has become the country with the third highest number of Covid-19 cases globally, after the United States and Brazil. A story in the Indian Express dated 14 July 2020 reported a country-wide total of 870,000 Covid-19 cases and 23,000 deaths.

Tamil Nadu state — the main source of our migrant workers from India — now has 143,000 coronavirus cases and 2,032 deaths.

It is not known how reliable these figures are; the real numbers may be several multiples of the reported data.

What the numbers suggest is that it would be unlikely for Singapore to allow new worker arrivals from India anytime soon. The risk of imported cases is too significant to ignore.

The figures from Bangladesh don’t look as bad. As at 14 July 2020, there have been 187,000 Covid-19 cases and 2,391 deaths, though once again, the reliability of these figures has been questioned.

Even allowing for the fact that Bangladesh has a smaller population than India, the incidence rate for Bangladesh is 1,134 cases per million population compared to  8,944 for India (Source: Worldometers.info, 14 July 2020).

However, a new story in the Bangladeshi newspaper Daily Star puts a spotlight on the reliability of even health certificates issued in that country. Several passengers on a flight reaching Italy on 6 July tested positive despite documents certifying that they had tested negative and were safe to travel.

14 July 2020
Daily Star

151 Bangladeshis refused entry to Italy

Italy did not allow 151 Bangladeshi passengers to enter into the country today who were on board a Qatar Airways flight from Dhaka.

Qatar Airways will fly the Bangladeshi passengers back to Dhaka tomorrow, an official of the airline at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport said.

“We did not know of the Italian government’s decision that no passengers from Bangladesh would be allowed to enter into Italy,” the official said.

Another official of Qatar Airways said they will abide by the decision of Italian government and will not carry any Italy-bound Bangladeshi passengers from Dhaka from now on until the ban is lifted.

The 151 passengers were on their way to Fiumicino International Airport, Rome from Dhaka via Doha, Qatar, sources at the Qatar Airways, Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport, said.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Italian government decided not to allow any special flights to and from Italy after several Bangladeshi passengers on the July 6 flight of Biman Bangladesh Airlines tested positive for Covid-19 despite having documents certifying that they had tested negative and were safe to travel.

Biman Bangladesh Airlines recently operated several chartered flights from Bangladesh to Italy.

On July 6, a total of 276 Bangladeshi nationals who were stranded in the country for more than three months due to Covid-19 pandemic were repatriated to Rome by a special flight of Biman.

The following day the Minister of Health, Italy, Roberto Speranza, ordered the suspension of flights arriving from Bangladesh, said a release of the Italian health ministry.

This makes destination countries like Singapore wary about allowing people from Bangladesh in. So once again, it is unlikely that workers will be permitted to travel here in the near future.

Needed: a “keep them here” policy

Given the risk when bringing in workers from Bangladesh and India anytime soon, Singapore should have a policy of keeping migrant workers here rather than sending them home. Even if they lose their present jobs due to the economic downturn or dispute with their employers (e.g. over salary),  they should be free to change jobs easily rather than be pressured to go home.

Otherwise, Singapore won’t have the workers we need to power our economic recovery.

For example, TWC2 is hearing from workers with pending salary claims that they’re being told by officials that unless they can agree to a settlement with their employers, they have to go home to await their court dates several months from now.

This may be a case of “right hand does not know what the left hand is doing”. If coming back from India and Bangladesh is likely to prove risky to public health then this is self-defeating policy. Alternatively, if we deny them the right to return for their day in court (on the ground of public health risk) then Singapore will stand accused of denying salary justice to workers and condoning wage theft.

Workers with salary claims should be allowed to find new jobs here even if their court dates are delayed. They’re a precious resource now that it isn’t safe to bring workers in from India and Bangladesh.