Results of study conducted in early September 2020 by TWC2 volunteers

The great majority of Work Permit holders living in dormitories have yet to enjoy time out from their confinement after more than five months of lockdown. This is the sense that we got from a telephone study of workers inside dorms. Many have now resumed work, but they are taken to worksites on company transport and taken directly back to the dorms at the end of their shifts. In effect, we’re extracting labour from them but still not giving them any way to enjoy their leisure outside their crowded accommodation, or to buy essentials from shops of their choice.

We intended our study to explore how workers were benefitting from the new rest day arrangements, recently announced in August by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). (See also related advisories — this one for employers, for dorm operators and a third one on 16 Sept 2020). However, because so few workers in our sample reported enjoying time out, the main finding of our study is not about rest days and going out, but about how they were almost all still confined.

MOM’s trial arrangements were to allow workers to visit “recreation centres” close to their dorms. The term “recreation centre” is not exactly accurate. It is a cluster of shops or cheap eating places serving foreign workers. There would be service outlets such as remittance agents or barber shops too. There might be a sports hall. Here are two photos of the recreation centre at Tuas South:

We spoke with 72 male Indian and Bangladeshi migrant workers by phone during the first 13 days of September 2020. Of these 72 men, 57 had Work Permits and were staying in dorms. By “dorms”, we include purpose-built dorms, factory-converted dorms and temporary dorms at worksites, etc. These 57 men were the core sample for our study.

We found that only four of the 57 workers (7%) had left their dorms recently to buy things.

That said, this was not a quantitative study. Our interest was qualitative — to learn how workers understood the exit arrangements and their experiences of going out. Too often, by the time policy developed at the top filters down to the bottom it becomes unrecogniseably different, and we wanted to know if this was happening over this issue.

We had learned from MOM that only three recreation centres were foci of the trials — Kaki Bukit, Soon Lee and Kranji. Hence, we skewed our sampling to workers living near Kranji or Soon Lee, expecting that dorms in the vicinity would have instituted exit pass arrangements allowing their worker-residents to go out on their assigned rest days. Because of this slight skewing, our finding that only 7% of respondents had experienced going out is likely an over-estimate of the proportion of workers currently enjoying a bit of escape. This indicates that the large majority of dorm residents — easily over 90% — are still confined.

Unfortunately, with only four respondents reporting an experience of going out, it was not possible to draw any clear picture of how the exit arrangements are working; this may have to await a follow-up study.

Most have resumed work

Of 57 dorm residents with Work Permits, 53 had green access code status. Two more said they were green but added that they had been re-quarantined (so we reclassified their response to “re-quarantined”).

43 of these 53 men were going out to work. One more man said he had work, but it was for some days only (so now reclassified as “irregular”).

Of these 43+1 men who had resumed work, seven men (including the irregular work guy) said they were permitted to go out to buy things, but only two of them had experienced going out. Four men said they had not gone out; one gave an unclear answer.

Nine men said they were not yet working even though their access code was green. Of these nine, three said they were allowed to go out, of which two had done so.

Four men did not have green access code, including the two re-quarantined guys. Unsurprisingly, none had been allowed to go out.

How long have they been confined?

Of the 57 men with work permits, only four men had gone out of their dorms recently (other than for work). The great majority — 49 of them — had not been able to go out since March or April 2020 (five or six months ago), or it was so long ago, they could not remember.

The four men who replied “August” in the table above were the four men who were able to leave their dorms.

It should be noted that besides these four, six others said they were allowed to go out but hadn’t yet taken the opportunity. Of these six, two men last went out in March, two men last went out in April and one man said he couldn’t remember when it was. One gave an unclear answer.

Comments by the four who had gone out recently

Of the four men who had experienced going out, three were based in dorms in the Soon Lee and Kian Teck areas, and thus close to the Soon Lee Recreation Centre. The fourth lived in a Sungei Kadut dorm and close to the Kranji Recreation Centre. This is consistent with what we know of the locations for the trial arrangement.

In their further comments, the men described how they had to register with the security gate at the dorm before they could go out. One man specified that he was given only one hour, whereas MOM’s advisory stipulated three hours. In any case, this guy said that because he only wanted to purchase a couple of things, he accomplished it all in less time than that.

Two workers said they walked to the recreation centre. The other two did not describe how they got there.

The six who say they were allowed out, but hadn’t gone out

Of the six who said they could go out but had yet to do so, again three lived in Soon Lee and one in Sungei Kadut. The fifth lived in Tuas and the sixth in a worksite downtown.

Not having actually gone out, the guys living in Soon Lee and Sungei Kadut could not provide details of how exactly they would get exit passes to go out though they mentioned obstacles that involved dorm-level or company-level difficulties. For example, one man said  that to enjoy time-out, workers had to “ask company, company find lorry, but [if] lorry is not free, we cannot go out.” Another told us that his dorm had announced a two-hour limit. A third told us about his dorm instituting a rather complicated “block by block” arrangement.

We found the comments by the fifth and sixth guys unreliable. Firstly, they were in dorms outside the trial areas and secondly, their comments left us wondering whether they were referring to going out for work or going out for essential errands. The confusion would be quite understandable. If workers in dorms had not been given any information about the possibility of time-out, but only knew of going to work, then when a TWC2 interviewer called to ask, they would naturally assume we were asking about going to work.

Common or notable comments by those who could not go out

The great majority of our interviewees were not permitted to leave their dorms at all, except for work. From the many comments we collected from them, there were some common themes.

The most common mention was that they could only purchase essential items from the shops located within their dorms, and even then, there was (as reported by one worker) a roster system for when they could visit the ground floor shops. Some other workers reported that they could place phone orders with shops located close to their dorms and those shops would deliver to the gate.

Three workers mentioned that their company foreman or supervisor (not resident in dorms) took orders and bought needed items for them from outside.

There were many comments about not being given any information about time-out, about being kept in the dark.

There were a surprising number of comments along the lines of feeling safer not to go out, or how they understood that confinement was for their own good. Whether these comments were being offered because workers might have thought it politically correct to say that, was hard for us to discipher.

We came across one worker who was clearly despondent about not having work and being confined. He even said that he had attempted suicide more than once. He just wanted to go home.

Another worker was frustrated that he could not make visits to temples. It reminds us that spiritual needs are also important.

And finally, one worker reported being in a 12-man room with mixed green and red access codes. Seven men had green and were going out to work (including our interviewee), but five men — staying in the same room — had red access codes, though they were well. They were mixed together, which the interviewee thought was quite concerning.