On Wednesday, 13 October 2021, a group of aggrieved workers — mostly Chinese as seen from the circulating photos and videos — gathered at the gate of a new dormitory at Jalan Tukang. There was some shouting but no violence or any aggressive move. Nonetheless the riot police were called, perhaps to intimidate away any chance of escalation.

From news reports, the workers’ grievances were mainly twofold:

  1. Many of them have recently tested positive for Covid-19* but had neither been moved to isolation facilities nor given medical treatment;
  2. Their meals were supplied by caterers and the food had vermin in them or was otherwise spoiled and unfit for consumption.

There may be more to it than just the above, as we will touch on in the section ‘Look beyond the trigger factors’ below.

New dorm standards — for workers’ better welfare

Not even a month after the announcement of the new dormitory standards in September 2021 — touted to improve the welfare of migrant workers and make for Covid-resilient facilities — these have now been proven to be useless.

*We don’t have a breakdown of how many cases at this dorm are asymptomatic.

A previous report in the Straits Times said that 97% of migrant workers in dorms turn out to be asymptomatic (link) but this ratio may not apply in this case since it was revealed that the majority of workers in this dorm were unvaccinated — which is quite unusual.

In 2020, when tens of thousands of migrant workers presented positive PCR test results, we later discovered that twice as many were serologically positive even though they had not been aware that they were infected. This suggests that among unvaccinated migrant workers, about two in three who get infected remain asymptomatic.

We wrote about the new dorm standards in the article Government announces new standards for control of virus, packaged as new dorm standards.

In fact, in at least one respect, the Jalan Tukang dorm, managed by Centurion Corp under its brandname Westlite, was built to even higher standards than the September 2021 announcement. It had been built by Jurong Town Corporation as one of the quick-build dorms based on the temporary new standards announced in June 2020. These called for a maximum of 10 men to a room, in single decker beds.

The September 2021 announcement walked back this standard to 12 men per room in double-decker beds.

Despite this, the Straits Times reported (source link) that about of quarter of the 2,000 residents in the 3,420-bed dormitory had come down with Covid-19. Some of them “had been sick for about seven or eight days,” a worker told the newspaper.

This newspaper also reported a worker (or more than one worker) saying that the Covid-19 positive men had not been properly isolated. However, the next paragraph said,

But Sembcorp Marine, which employs a large number of the workers, and the dorm’s operator Westlite Accomodation said on Thursday (Oct 14) that the dorm has been observing Covid-19 health testing and movement protocols.

(Sembcorp Marine is the employer of about 1,400 of the 2,000 workers staying in the dormitory.)

This difference between the worker’s report and the protestations of the employer and dorm operator needs to be squared. Either one side is lying or “observing protocols” simply means asking workers to sleep on the floor in corridors and walkways (as the photo at the top shows).

The new dorm standards also call for at least 10 isolation beds per 1,000 bed spaces “during peacetime” and “additional 15 isolation beds per 1,000 bed spaces to be stood up during pandemics”. This means that Westlite Jalan Tukang needs only provide 85 isolation beds. Yet, as reported by the worker, about a quarter of the 2,000 residents came down with Covid in the space of seven or eight days — that means some 500 isolation beds would be needed.

Once again, the new dorm standards are proven to fall far short.

Can we blame the dorm? It is in the nature of serious pandemics that infections will spread rapidly (if it spreads slowly, it won’t become a pandemic) so prepardness for a pandemic cannot be as miserly as 10 or 25 isolation beds per 1,000. We will always need the agility to set up huge isolation complexes at separate locations and at short notice too.

If these standards are now proven useless, why bother to have them? Why make dorm owners bear the cost of retrofitting their facilities to these “improved” standards when they won’t make a darn difference?

Slow in transferring to isolation

Channel NewsAsia’s story reported the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) saying:

“MOM’s preliminary investigations found that there were indeed some delays in conveying workers who tested positive for COVID-19 from their rooms to a care or recovery facility to recover,” it [MOM] said.

The ministry said it was working on transferring those who need further medical care to healthcare facilities for treatment.

So, despite the protestations of Sembcorp and Westlite, there were failures. But before closing the matter and blaming only Sembcorp and Westlite, it would be interesting if somebody also looked into the question of confused signals.

Just 10 or 11 days earlier, new guidelines were issued by MOM regarding Covid-positives in dorms. The headline of the Straits Times story (Vaccinated workers with Covid-19 but no symptoms can recover in dorms’ dedicated facilities, 2 Oct 2021) says it all. Could it be that despite cases exceeding the available isolation beds in the dorms, there was resistance to having cases transferred out? Were there bureaucrats who pointed to the 2nd October rule and said “No, they must recover within the dorm itself”?

But the above point may be moot, because as the latest news story of 15 October reveals (discussed below), the majority of the workers were not even vaccinated! The possibility remains, however, that the authorities didn’t even realise this. Indeeed there are so many questions that need to be asked.

Although the guidelines say infected workers can recover in the dorms, it’s a known fact from around the world that bureaucrats often interpret “can” as “must”. It makes life easier for them; they do not need to assess a situation, think for themselves and take the risk of making a decision (for which they may later be blamed).

In any case, it is not as if the fast-rising number of positives at the dorm in the previous week was unknown to the authorities. Between the Ministry of Health and MOM, they must have known about the trend. Did no one enquire with the dorm management what help they needed, especially once the numbers crossed the isolation bed capacity of the dorm (another known number)?

Majority unvaccinated (see Post-script for new information)

An interesting new angle appeared in the Channel NewsAsia’s story of 15 October (MOM deployed ‘insufficient resources’ to transfer COVID-19 cases from Westlite Jalan Tukang dormitory). It said, quoting Tung Yui Fai, Chief of MOM’s Assurance, Care and Engagement (ACE) Group:

Mr Tung said a majority of the migrant workers in Westlite Jalan Tukang dormitory have not been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“Many of them have arrived in Singapore not too many months ago and are worried about infection as Singapore is transiting to ‘living with COVID’. Hence, it is important to explain to them how we are doing this,” he said.

“We are working with the employer to encourage them to be vaccinated either with our national vaccines for the best protection, but if they wish, with a vaccine that they accept.”

These Chinese workers must have been brought in under a fast-track scheme to fill gaps left by Bangladeshi and Indian workers who had left in droves last year or early this year.

Why these Chinese workers were not immediately vaccinated on arrival in Singapore is unclear. Nor is it something that the government can pin the blame onto the employer or dorm operator. Surely a simple vaccination rule from MOM or the Ministry of Health right at the beginning would have avoided the present situation. It is also possible, as alluded by Tung’s statement, that there may be resistance among Chinese workers to the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines that are part of our national vaccination programme. It has been reported that the Chinese government is campaigning to undermine confidence in mRNA vaccines; its own vaccines are based on old technology of killed viruses. Perhaps the Chinese workers have been influenced to distrust Pfizer and Moderna.

This only tells us what a great folly it was to have created a situation where thousands of Indian and Bangladeshi workers went home — and many had either been vaccinated (at Singapore taxpayer’s cost) or had acquired natural immunity from last year’s infection wave. Some felt their prolonged confinement in their quarters was so intolerable they didn’t want to continue working here anymore. Others wanted to stay on and work, but their employers insisted on repatriating them. TWC2 spoke up about this absurdity since early this year, but MOM refused for months to overrule employers’ decisions to repatriate. Perhaps preserving employers’ unfettered power over workers is more important than the cost to our economy.

More questions!

Were there diplomatic difficulties that held us back from requiring that Chinese workers be vaccinated with mRNA vaccines? If so, then the decision to use Chinese workers to replace departing Indians and Bangladeshis would look foolish in hindsight.

And even if, in response to this crisis, we offered Sinovac to the Chinese workers (as suggested by Tung) and achieved a good take-up rate, would that be good enough?

The World Health Organisation published a report which concluded that Sinovac’s vaccine (Coronavac) had efficacy rates against symptomatic disease ranging from 50 – 84 percent. The rates differed considerably among the four country-trials that Sinovac conducted, in Turkey, Chile, Indonesia and Brazil. These rates are certainly better than nothing, but if large numbers are vaccinated thus, would that be enough to make for herd immunity?

They may have thought that bringing in Chinese workers in a hurry as replacements would be a good enough solution. Firstly, we doubt if these Chinese workers would accept the same wages that the Bangladeshi and Indian guys worked for, and now we have an outbreak because someone forgot to get them vaccinated, or they declined our mRNA vaccines.

See also our questions in the pink box.

Three months ago, in a letter published in the Straits Times Forum, TWC2 urged that new batches of workers being brought into Singapore must be vaccinated on or before arrival. See our letter in the Straits Times (published 20 July 2021). A copy is archived on this site as well. We were concerned that important clearance steps were still vague and were being outsourced to employment agents and employers, with much of the process taking place outside Singapore too. It’s a shame our call was not heeded.

Quitting and going home

TWC2 also notes that the worker who spoke with the Straits Times — a certain Mr Ren — said he has resigned and wants to go home to China.

Some of the workers had threatened to quit and return to their homelands because they were frustrated with how they were being treated.

Mr Ren said he has since resigned and just wants to go home.

(link to source).

Ren said he was frustrated with how they were being treated. What did he have in mind when he spoke of treatment? Was it just the matter of falling ill with Covid-19 and not getting medical care? We doubt it. Frustration usually takes time to build up, drawing on many other root causes. We think that the shock of being confined to their dormitories since their arrival in Singapore must be a factor too — the same reasons that many Bangladeshi and India workers chose to leave. Why do we expect Chinese workers to tolerate unjust imprisonment any more than South Asians?

Also, we should try to put ourselves in their shoes: having to eat cold catered meals day after day for months on end, with hardly any choice of menu. Would we put up with that? But bad food cannot be solved without resolving the question of confinement. Confine men and you have to feed them and that means cold catered food in polystyrene boxes. The issue always boils down to MOM’s callous policy of continued confinement, now past eighteen months.

Look beyond the trigger factors

Chances are that our mainstream media will stick to the safe and narrow and keep the focus on the immediate issues that led to this crisis. In Singapore, it is politically dangerous to lift the lid on things too high.

Yet, unless we do, we cannot improve. We cannot really solve problems. Always look beyond the trigger factors, we say. Many of our comments above already indicate that, like so many disasters, this one too is ultimately a confluence of many mistakes. Inevitably some of these mistakes involve either government policy or execution.

There is one huge bad policy we need to point out: Ever since the pandemic began, the government made all dorm-resident migrant workers into battery chickens. 300,000 able-bodied men became helpless wards of their employers and dorm managers, as directed by the government. Deprived of freedom of movement, yet requiring upkeep — otherwise how can they lay eggs produce economic output for Singapore? — the government loaded onto employers and dorm operators huge responsibilities for keeping these battery hens alive and well.

Employers have to organise meals, since workers, who are perfectly able to buy groceries and cook their own meals to their hearts’ content if only they were allowed to, now have to be confined and fed via polystyrene clamshells. If anything goes wrong with the food, the employer’s executive officers have to run around and solve the problem.

Employers have to become care-givers. Any worker who needs medical care can no longer make his own way to a doctor, any more than a battery hen can strut out to her choice of vet. Instead, the employer has to disrupt his own business operations and send a lorry to ferry the sick worker to a doctor. And then the driver may have to wait there till the worker is done (and we know how long queues can be at clinics).

We can certainly imagine a phone conversation like this:

Worker: I need to see a doctor.

Boss: Cannot, at least not today. Lorry not free. I have just sent it out to collect more steel bars.

Worker: See, even when we’re sick, no medical care is offered.

Boss: Why don’t you ask the dorm management to take you to a doctor?

Worker: I did, but dorm boss said their business is to run a dorm, not to operate a fleet of vehicles. And they have no drivers.

Pre-Covid, workers could leave their dorms at any time and find their own way to a doctor. Workers could take a taxi and claim for reimbursement later.

Wanting to imprison all 300,000 workers, the government demanded that employers and dorm operators become prison wardens, food providers, care-givers and chauffeurs for all their workers. But, especially in these times, companies are already struggling to stay in business. If a big company like Sembcorp finds it hard to be prison wardens and wet-nurses for its workers, what more of a small contractor who has only one old lorry and perpetual cashflow problems?

And here’s the mea culpa from a Channel NewsAsia story (15 October 2021):

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) deployed “insufficient resources” for an “unexpected” increase in COVID-19 cases at Westlite Jalan Tukang dormitory, resulting in delays to the transfer of these cases to care or recovery facilities.

Chief of MOM’s Assurance, Care and Engagement (ACE) Group Tung Yui Fai said this in remarks provided to the media after a visit to the migrant workers’ dormitory in Jurong on Friday (Oct 15).

Even MOM with its huge resources (unlimited budget) and access to real time data couldn’t perform the role of prison warden properly. What more of private sector employers and dorm operators whose more pressing focus is their own business’ bottom-line?

We shouldn’t be fooled by excuses such as “unexpected” increase in infections or attempts to cast blame merely on employers’ and dorm operators’ responses during the past week. The present events were a long time in making. The moment MOM decided that workers must be incarcerated (like forever?) and that employers have unfettered freedom to repatriate workers at will no matter how desperately short Singapore is of migrant workers, the scene would have been set for the crisis we see today.

17 Oct 2021: Channel NewsAsia (CNA) reported late 16 October that contrary to what MOM’s Tung Yui Fai had said, “Fifty-five per cent of the migrant workers at Westlite Jalan Tukang dormitory have verified their vaccination status or have been vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Saturday (Oct 16)”. This does not mean that Tung was in error, because he was speaking before October 16 when he told the media that the majority of the workers were unvaccinated. The authorities could have rushed up the verification process since he spilled the beans.

The remaining 45 percent have yet to verify their vaccination status or have yet to receive a vaccine as at 16 October.

Incoming workers who claimed they had been vaccinated in their home countries have to undergo a verification process before they are entered into Singapore’s vaccination registry. Quoting a ministry spokesperson, CNA reported:

“Until the verification process is completed and the vaccination records updated in the National Immunisation Registry, migrant workers will be considered as unvaccinated for Rostered Routine Testing and public health actions.”

The verification process, which is needed before an individual can be identified as vaccinated, can take up to several weeks to be completed, MOM added.

[snip]

Under Singapore’s current health protocols, people, including migrant workers, who received their COVID-19 vaccination overseas are also required to provide a positive serology test result from an approved medical provider in the country, as part of the verification process.

Separately, Sembcorp Marine, the employer of 1,400 of about 2,000 residents in the dormitory, asserted to CNA that “All 1,400 workers were vaccinated in their home country prior to their arrival in Singapore,” suggesting that the problem was in the extremely slow way the verification process works. Plenty of questions rain down from the preceding statements, and it is a pity that our mainstream media reporters either do not even think of these questions or feel too timid to ask. For example:

(a) Since these workers have, reportedly, already been in Singapore for a few months, why is the verification process so far behind time? Is the whole system not fit for purpose?

(b) Couldn’t we have insisted that their vaccination status be verified while undergoing the initial post-arrival quarantine before being released to work? Or did we waive quarantine for them — in which case, why?

(c) How many (numbers and percentage) of the Jalan Tukang residents have tested PCR-positive for Covid-19 so far?

(d) Of these, how many are mildly symptomatic and how many more seriously symptomatic?

(e) If the percentage of symptomatic cases is high, yet Sembcorp says they have all been vaccinated in their home country, does that not mean that China’s vaccination programme using Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines is insufficient to achieve the herd immunity standards expected in Singapore? In which case, should they all be vaccinated with RNA vaccines as well?

Interestingly, the Ministry of Health’s daily update for 16 October 2021 mentions only two clusters in its paragraph 8 (“Active clusters under close monitoring”). They are ECON medicare centre and nursing home in Buangkok View with 59 cases so far and United Medicare Centre in Toa Payoh with 123 cases. We see no mention of the Jalan Tukang cluster, even though there are biggish numbers in the graph of dormitory cases (the graph would include other dorms as well). Why?