Like most existing dormitories, Cochrane Lodge II may need to be retrofitted to meet the new standards, but how and when is unclear.

The new standards for migrant worker dormitories, announced 17 September 2021, represent a walking back from the proposed standards announced only 15 months earlier in June 2020. They also focus exclusively on Covid-19 control, with little said about comfort or privacy.

From this almost obsessive focus on infection control, we can once again glimpse the State’s prevailing attitude that foreign workers are objects to be kept safe from deterioration – because they are economically valuable commodities – failing to see them as human beings for whom decent housing should be a matter much broader than disease prevention.

The new standards were announced by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on 17 September 2021 and can be seen in their press statement of that date.

Before we go further, and to avoid confusion, it should be explained that there are three different standards in question:

  • What we’ll call a pre-Covid standard;
  • Proposed new standards announced on or around 1 June 2020;
  • New standards announced on 17 September 2021.

Here is a comparison table:

Key measure Pre-Covid Proposed (June 2020) New standard (Sep 2021)
Floor area per occupant 4.5 m2 including shared facilities 6.0 m2 excluding shared facilities 4.2 m2 excluding shared facilities
Max number of occupants per room No limit 10 12
Type of beds allowed No rule Only single-deck beds allowed Double-deck beds allowed
Wet facilities ratio One set per 15 occupants One set per 5 occupants One set per 6 occupants
Wet facilities access No rule (i.e. can be shared among whole floor or whole block) Ensuite Ensuite

Note: the proposed and new standards also contain other measures, but for simplicity, we’ve only listed the main ones in the table above. Also, one set of ‘wet facilities’ comprise a lavatory, a shower and a washbasin.

Below, we discuss our main concerns about the new standards.

Floor area per occupant

The new density standards are weaker than that proposed in June 2020. Those proposed standards called for 6.0 square metres per resident net of shared facilities and which would be piloted in eleven Quick-Build Dormitories (QBDs). The new standards (4.2 square metres per person excluding shared facilities) are little better than the pre-Covid standards.

As reported by Channel NewsAsia in June 2020 when the proposed standards were announced,

Under a pilot programme, the living space per resident at the new quick build dormitories will be improved to at least 6 sq m (not including shared facilities) from at least 4.5 sq m per resident (including shared facilities) currently.

There will also be a maximum of 10 beds per room. There are currently no limits on the maximum number of beds allowed per room, although in practice, dormitories typically have about 12 to 16 beds in each room.

The new set of requirements will see only single-deck beds being used, with 1m spacing between the beds. Double-decker beds are currently mostly used in dormitories.

There will also be at least one bathroom, sink and toilet for every five beds, instead of every 15 beds currently.

—  Channel NewsAsia, 1 June 2020, Singapore to build new dormitories with improved living standards for migrant workers.  Link.

The Straits Times reported:

Asked about these differences, MOM deputy secretary for workforce, Mr Poon Hong Yuen, said developing the new standards is not a “simple mathematical calculation”.

The safe management measures put in place, along with contact tracing measures, gave the authorities space to relax some of the proposed standards, he added.

Ms Chew [Chew Ee Tien, director of MOM’s foreign manpower unit]   said the decision to mandate at least 4.2 sq m of living space in new dorms instead of 6 sq m took in account the fact that disease transmission could still occur within dorm rooms.

Hence, the authorities focused on other issues key to reducing transmission, such as room occupancy limits, en-suite toilets and ventilation, she said.

— Straits Times, 17 Sept 2021, Larger living spaces, better ventilation among improved standards for new migrant worker dorms). Link.

MOM’s 17 September press release speaks of “reducing intermixing amongst dormitory residents by modularising dormitory living and segmenting communal facilities (e.g. cooking, dining and laundry facilities)”. What this really implies is that MOM intends to permanently rely on lockdowns and confinement as the new norm. Specifically, the press release says that communal facilities (e.g. cooking, dining, laundry facilities) should be designed to allow segmentation for dedicated use by no more than 120 residents per section.

This can be read in conjunction with wastewater surveillance standards. While not explicitly stated in the press release, the Straits Times reported from the press conference they attended that: “separate sanitation lines for each block to allow for wastewater surveillance testing.” (ibid).

Underlying these design requirements seems to be an acceptance that infection will spread rapidly within a dorm — since we’re keeping a high density in the new standard (discussed below) — and thus the chief concern should be to keep the module size small so that the economic cost to Singapore from locking down the whole group is not so huge. It’s not about the men’s welfare; it’s about the cost.

Maximum number of workers in a room

Whilst MOM’s latest statement speaks of “reduc[ing] the risk of transmission of infectious diseases in dormitories”, they do not appear to be prepared to go very far in reducing density. What TWC2 has learned from infectious disease experts is that the high transmissibility of Covid-19 and similar infections means that when one member of a household is infected, there is a very high chance that all the rest of a household will get it. Keeping household size small is thus a major factor in determining how many others get infected.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, dorm rooms — these would be analogous to the “household” —  typically housed 12, 16 or 20 workers since there were no occupancy limits. We have since learned from our pandemic experience that rooms with these many residents were incubators for explosive multiplication of infections. Reducing density is thus key to resilience.

Yet, the new standards (12 men per room) are merely at the low end of prior practice instead of a complete departure from packing 12 – 20 men per room. This is hardly a improvement. In 2020, TWC2 proposed no more than four persons per room.

Another reason why TWC2 proposes four persons per room is with respect to privacy and restfulness. These considerations do not seem to feature in the new standards.

Wifi and laundry

The new standards also require provision of wifi and laundry drying areas.

These are new requirements that had not existed before, and therefore represent improvements, but beyond saying that these features should be present, there are no technical specifications. Workers have previously complained that wifi came with such low bandwidth it was often useless. Nor do the standards say that wifi should be free, in the absence of which, dorms can charge monopolistically (since workers have no choice but to live where they are directed to).

Likewise, the new standards simply say that covered areas should be available for drying laundry, but no minimum floor area is specified. Dorms can thus meet this standard by providing insufficient covered area. This will lead workers to hang their wet laundry near their beds like they used to re-Covid, leading to reduced ventilation and higher humidity (and discomfort) in the room.

At first sight, requiring provision of wifi and laundry drying areas may seem like an attempt to make life better for workers, but TWC2 can intuit that the chief motivation for writing these into the new standards was not concern for them, but (once again) for infection control and surveillance.

MOM needs workers to have all sorts of surveillance apps on their mobile phones otherwise they cannot exercise control over workers and their movements. Likewise, we can see that giving the men some other space to dry their laundry would improve air circulation in the room — important for infection control.

Green areas

An unexpected new requirement is that of 0.15 square metre of “open grass” area per resident. In their briefing, MOM explained that this came from feedback from workers who complained about the “all-concrete” environment they were subjected to.

0.15 m2 per resident is really very little. For example, the proposed new dormitories which MOM will be building in Kranji and Jalan Tukang, each with 12,500 beds, need only have 1,875 square metres of turf, or less than a fifth of a hectare. Another way to visualise it is as one sixth of a football field.

The coloured area is what one-sixth of a football pitch looks like. This would be the turfed area required for a dorm housing 12,500 workers. (The photo is of Shiplane stadium in Essex).

TWC2 recognises that in land-scarce Singapore, we simply cannot afford to set aside much land for greenery. However, rooftop gardens offer a reasonable alternative. They even have the advantage of allowing locked-down residents of a block or a module enjoyment of the garden above their own block.

Somewhere, we came across a mention of using roof acreage for solar panels. Clearly, a choice needs to be made, and in TWC2’s view, considering how crowded the dormitories will remain, the choice should be made in favour of better living standards and recreational space rather than generating electricity and saving money.

The contrast between the lax requirements for wifi, laundry and turfing and the fastidious standards for modular separation and wastewater monitoring highlights the State’s priorities. Requirements that provide comfort and convenience for workers are totally secondary to requirements for surveillance, control and cost-saving.

Nothing against barbed-wire fencing

It is striking how the new standards do not forbid barbed-wire fencing. Such boundary features create a hostile environment for workers having to live within.

They also create the subliminal idea, among people outside looking at dorm complexes, that migrant workers are dangerous threats – for why else would they be housed in what looks like a prison? This is contrary to government statements about being accepting of foreign workers in our midst and appreciating their contribution to Singapore.

TWC2 suspects that few in government reflect upon their own ingrained biases. Maybe they themselves do see migrant workers in stereotypical ways, as dangerous contaminants and security threats to be controlled? The new dormitory standards hardly dispel this possibility.