Montage of pictures of Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel in Dhaka from TripAdvisor.com
Starting from November 2021, we began to hear of workers from Bangladesh arriving in Singapore for new jobs under a ‘pilot scheme’. We knew this meant that they would be brought in under very strict quarantine conditions due to fears of Covid-19. There would be quarantine pre-departure and post-arrival.
A job advertisement by a construction subcontractor and circulating on Facebook recently caught our attention because it came with details of the pre-departure quarantine arrangements for the successful candidate(s).
The programme requires workers to perform five days’ of self-isolation at home, followed by 14 days at the Le Meridien Hotel in Dhaka.
A few days later, we met with one worker — let’s call him Ragul — who had arrived in Singapore in October 2021. We seized the opportunity to ask him for details of what he went through, both pre-departure and post-arrival. There were many phases, and the easiest way to present the information is with a table.
No. of days
After agreeing on the new job with the prospective employer, Ragul began seven days of self-isolation at his home in Bangladesh in the third week of August.
“Do you live in Dhaka or in a small town?” we ask him.
“Not in Dhaka,” he replies. “About five hours away from the city.”
This makes us curious. How is self-isolation monitored outside of a large city?
“Every day make video-call,” Ragul tells us.
On or around 25 August 2021, he went to Dhaka and checked-in to Pan-Pacific Sonargaon Hotel for 15 days of isolation.
After flying into Singapore — he arrived on 9 September 2021 — Ragul spent 8 days in an Ibis Hotel.
Then he moved to a “government dormitory in Punggol” for another 8 days of quarantine.
“Then move again,” he says, this time to an “MOM dormitory, and do medical check-up, make permit, do fingerprint…” MOM stands for Ministry of Manpower, and Ragul appears to make a distinction between the “government dormitory” (phase 4) and the “MOM dormitory” (phase 5) though both are in the Punggol area. He stresses that they are different dorms; we don’t go further into what the distinction is between the two.
Finally, he had to spend four more days in isolation at the company dormitory in Kranji before he could commence work. By this point, it was already early October 2021.
In all, Ragul had to spend 46 days in isolation or quarantine.
Why so long? Why 46 days?
Knowing our government, we can hazard a guess.
We believe the “real” quarantine period comprises phases 3, 4 and 5 (20 days). Basically, Singapore does not trust any isolation or quarantine arrangements in source countries to be watertight.
So why bother to insist on phases 1 and 2? Singapore may think that even if these periods are not leak-proof, at least with phases 1 and 2 the chance of a Covid-positive guy arriving on a flight will be much reduced. And then the real quarantine can begin.
In 2020, Ragul was laid up for even longer
Forty-six days may strike us as unnecessarily long given what we know of Covid-19’s incubation period. However, Ragul had spent even longer last year, in 2020.
He was in Singapore in the first half of that year but came down with Covid-19 sometime in April. He spent 14 – 15 days in hospital — there was also an unrelated medical problem — followed by “over 30 days” in a quarantine facility, and then another “35 – 40 days” in isolation on a ship. He cannot remember the exact count of days due to the passage of time, but it seems to total about 90 days.
By the time he came out of quarantine, the company had failed and there was no more job. There was also a problem about unpaid salaries. Ragul estimates he had to write off about $4,000.
What’s the problem now?
That Ragul has now come to talk to us, only a month and a half after starting work with his new employer, is significant — as anyone who understands what TWC2 does will immediately suspect. There’s trouble in the new job!
The manager is asking him to pay $6,000. When Ragul asked why, he was told by the manager, “This is the cost”, which really isn’t a clear answer by itself. Cost of what? The manager seemed coy about explaining but merely piled on the pressure: Pay up or we’ll cancel the Work Permit and send you home.
TWC2 suspects this demand for a kickback is to recover the cost of the quarantine — all 46 days of it.
From earlier cases where workers came to tell us their bosses were asking for recovery of two-week quarantine costs in Singapore, the figures mentioned were between $2,000 to $3,000. So, a total of $6,000 for the entire quarantine requirement that Ragul underwent would be consistent with that.
Not only are kickbacks illegal, but MOM has explicitly announced that employers should not be recovering such costs from employees. Nevertheless, Ragul’s case is not the first time that TWC2 has heard of employers demanding that workers pay back quarantine costs. Given the virtually broken system that MOM has over kickbacks and illegal recruitment costs — its enforcement is ineffective and victims receive little protection (e.g. complainants have no assurance of getting new jobs; don’t even dream of refunds!) — we fully expect that this practice will be rampant once workers start coming back in numbers.
Employers know that such pious pronouncements by MOM have as much teeth as last Sunday’s sermon.