This is Part 1 of a six-part series about the long lockdown endured by migrant workers in Singapore following the onset of Covid-19. For over two years since the beginning of the pandemic, workers experienced internment, salary loss, and deep frustration when trying to get even essential things done, such as seeing a doctor.

At no point during the pandemic were Singaporeans’ freedom of movement ever restricted. Things could not be more different for migrant workers. For all the spin about them being “essential workers” crucial to our economy, it often seemed as if calling them essential was just another way to justify all sorts of rules that made them mere cogs in an economic machine with no appreciation of their humanity, dignity or their inherent rights.

With the latest announcement retiring the Exit Pass (explained below), it is at last time to begin the process of collecting and documenting the experience of migrant workers.

In Parts 1 and 2, we set the scene for the case examples and discussion that follow in the subsequent parts. On this page, we will lay out the key dates. Part 2 will discuss the new regulations (enacted in 2020) giving the government and employers the power to lock people up without due process.

The first cases of Covid-19 and the total lockdown

The first cases of Covid-19 among male migrant workers surfaced in early February 2020, barely two weeks after Singapore’s first confirmed Covid-19 case was announced by the Ministry of Health on 23 January 2020 – a 66-year-old male Chinese national from Wuhan who arrived in Singapore with his family on 20 January 2020 for a visit.

On 9 February 2020, Boustead Projects, the company behind the construction works at Seletar Aerospace, had been informed that one Bangladeshi worker assigned to the worksite had tested positive for the new virus. By 18 February, four other cases associated with the worksite were also confirmed. (Today Online, 19 Feb 2020, Construction at Seletar Aerospace Heights halted since first COVID-19 case reported)

Cases multiplied rapidly in March 2020 and at other work locations too, and from 7 April 2020 onwards, worker dormitories were progressively locked down, one after another. By the end of the month, all dorms were shut and workers disallowed from leaving their accommodation. Within the dorms, strict rules were imposed on movement, such that virtually all workers were confined to their rooms for 22 or 23 hours a day. They were not even free to move around their dorm compound. Often, they could not even go to the bathroom without checking a roster. Meals were catered but these only resulted in endless complaints about poor quality, cultural inappropriateness and unchanging menus.

There were about 320,000 workers in dormitories during the severest period of the lockdown, most of them from the construction sector.

With construction sites shut down as well, the men in the dorms had no work, which quickly led to all sorts of problems over their entitlement to salary. TWC2 wrote about this issue contemporaneously at this website, but the salary angle is outside the scope of this series of articles about the lockdown, so we won’t go further here.

Oxen

In early August, four months after the barricading of the dormitories, the government announced that construction worksites would be progressively revived. All sorts of impractical ideas were announced to accompany the revival, e.g. reshuffling workers (from different employers, even) into work teams that should be isolated from other work teams, reshuffling rest days, and reshuffling workers’ accommodation, so that different work teams would stay at different dormitories. TWC2 heard that employers were up in arms over these expensive and burdensome ideas. The notion that work teams should be isolated from each other and never interact was completely antithetical to the collaborative and fluid nature of construction work. To our knowledge, little of this was eventually implemented – hardly any surprise since these ideas were totally divorced from reality.

Despite the announcement in early August 2020 about reviving construction sites, TWC2’s regular contact with workers revealed that in fact, most of their employers did not deploy them back to work until late September or October. By that point, they had been confined to close quarters, stuck in rooms with the same 12 to 16 co-workers, eating the same food day after day, for six months. They had also suffered severe income loss for those months. There were plenty of reports about a decline in mental health.

Even when work resumed, the rule was that employers had not only to transport the men out to work (migrant workers told us they were forbidden to take public transport) but also to transport them directly back to their accommodation at the end of the shift. Being taken out to work did not mean they were free to go anywhere else after work.

In short, the men were treated like oxen led out by their nose-rings each day to plough fields, but led back to the barn and tied up each evening. Meanwhile – and it bears repeating – there were no movement restrictions for Singaporeans, though there were reasonable rules about maximum group sizes, while some venues had to remain closed.

Around the same time that men were allowed to be taken out to work, they were also made subject to Rostered Routine Testing (“RRT”) where they had to be PCR-tested for Covid-19 every two weeks. The cost to the public purse of doing this must have been horrendous, especially as there were some 300,000 of such workers.

Exit Passes and recreation centres

Recreation centre

A recreation centre is a small cluster of shops and leisure facilities built close to dormitories and meant to serve the needs of foreign workers. There would typically be three or four grocery shops, mobile phone shops, ATMs, a barbershop and three or four cafes. As for leisure facilities, there could be badminton courts or a cricket field.

In Singapore, zoning is such that worker dormitories are typically located in industrial areas distant from the residential neighbourhoods where Singaporeans live. With infrequent public transport options, dorm-resident migrant workers often find it time-consuming – even if they were free to leave their dorms – to make the trip to the commercial centres of residential neighbourhoods.

On 31 October 2020, the government announced that “eligible” workers would be allowed to make a visit on their weekly rest days to nearby recreation centres.

What did “eligible” mean? The announcement said “recovered workers who still have immunity against COVID-19 and those who have been tested negative recently under the Rostered Routine Testing (RRT) regime”.

With that came the Exit Pass System, where workers had to apply up to seven days in advance for a time slot to visit the recreation centre closest to their dorms. This was done through a mobile phone app. This was also the beginning of the marginalisation of a subgroup of migrant workers – the Special Pass holders.

Perhaps some background about this little-known group, the Special Pass holders, would be helpful at this point.

The great majority of migrant workers hold Work Permits. However, employers are free to cancel their employees’ Work Permits at any time, and this often happens after a worker is injured, or has fallen ill. Another common trigger for cancellation is when a worker files a salary claim against his employer for unpaid or underpaid salary .

Since, despite the cancellation of his Work Permit, a worker still has a valid reason to remain in Singapore – for medical treatment, or until the resolution of the salary or injury compensation claim – the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) puts him on a Special Pass.

It might have begun as an oversight. The Exit Pass System only worked for Work Permit holders. Special Pass holders had no way of getting an Exit Pass through the app. That meant they still couldn’t go to a recreation centre to buy a bottle of shampoo or get a haircut.

TWC2 drew MOM’s attention to the plight of Special Pass workers time and again, yet it would be a year and a half before we got our first definitive reply from MOM regarding their right to leave the dorms. In the meantime, all we had were “case by case” permissions whenever we raised the case of a particular worker, with no across-the-board policy communicated to us or to the Special Pass holders. If the marginalisation of Special Pass holders had begun as an oversight, it took inexplicably long for the ministry to address it. They certainly cannot claim to be unaware of this subgroup of workers all this while; it was the ministry, after all, who issued Special Passes, and TWC2 had drawn their attention to many cases of unreasonable confinement over the months.

Vaccination

Around the last week of December 2020, the first Singaporeans received the Pfizer vaccine, with the vaccination programme scaling up rapidly in the following weeks. By the second quarter of 2021, vaccination was rolled out to migrant workers too.

By early June 2021, about 55,000 workers, or one fifth of migrant workers living in dormitories, had been fully vaccinated (i.e. 2 doses of an mRNA vaccine) as can be seen from a story in the Straits Times.

By 15 November 2021, the government said that about 98% of them were fully vaccinated.

Community visits

Starting 13 September 2021 – seventeen months after the general lockdown of dorms in April 2020 – the first group of workers were allowed to “visit the community” – a term that meant they could leave the dorms to visit an area that was neither their nearby recreation centre nor their workplace. (TodayOnline, 9 Sept 2021, Up to 500 vaccinated migrant workers a week can leave dorms to visit designated areas in pilot to ease curbs).

Like oxen taken out to work, now they were oxen taken out for community visits. They had to use the app to book a slot – there were only 500 slots per week – and on the appointed date and time, prove their vaccination status, take a rapid antigen test, board a designated excursion bus, be read the proverbial riot act before being taken to a predetermined location and allowed to walk around for a few hours.

There would be severe penalties if they did not join the return bus three or four hours later. Although the government announcement spoke of excursions of four to six hours’ duration, workers reported that the total duration included travelling time.

The weekly quota increased to 3,000 workers from 30 October 2021. The same arrangement of having to book a slot and then be shepherded to a designated location continued. See MOM’s announcement 22 October 2021. https://www.mom.gov.sg/newsroom/press-releases/2021/1022-expansion-of-comm-visit-and-easing-of-measures-for-rc-visit-for-vaccinated-workers

The same announcement also increased the number of visits a worker could make to a recreation centre to three times a week.

The quota for community visits was further increased to 3,000 workers a day on 3 December 2021. This was still unreasonable. Public health experts were by this time making the point strenuously that with vaccination rates in the region of 98% for migrant workers (higher than the vaccinated percentage among Singaporeans) and a very low incidence of new cases in dorms, there was no rationale for any of these restrictions.

A flat rate of 3,000 visit slots per day also took no account of the fact that for the great majority of migrant workers living in dorms, their rest day was a Sunday. As we pointed out to several journalists asking us for our take on this announcement, with only 3,000 slots each Sunday, it meant that only one percent of nearly 300,000 workers in dorms could go out on their rest day. Another way to see it would be this: At this rate, it would take 100 Sundays (i.e. two years) before every worker got one chance to go out on his rest day.

Quietly, the quota was increased for weekends. We say “quietly” because we could find no press release or announcement on MOM’s website on this. Instead, we learned of it from a parliamentary reply by Koh Poh Koon, Senior Minister of State for Manpower, two months later on 15 February 2022. He said,

…from 18 December 2021, 3,000 vaccinated migrant workers per day are allowed on community visits on weekdays and 6,000 vaccinated migrant workers per day on weekends and public holidays.

Parliament reports, 15 February 2022, Response to Adjournment Motion at Parliament.

Further relaxation

In March 2022, the quota was increased again. 15,000 vaccinated migrant workers would be allowed to visit the community on weekdays, and up to 30,000 on weekends and public holidays, for up to eight hours per visit. (Straits Times, 11 March 2022, Covid-19 rules, community visit limits to be eased for migrant workers in dorms).

A month later, a major increase. As reported by the Straits Times:

More migrant workers will be allowed to leave their dormitories to visit public places from next Tuesday (April 26), with up to 50,000 allowed in the community on weekends and public holidays and up to 25,000 on weekdays.

Unvaccinated workers will also be allowed to participate in these eight-hour visits, with the lifting in most settings of safe management measures that differentiate between vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

However, workers still need to apply for exit passes and indicate where they would like to go before they leave their dorms, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said in a statement on Friday.

Straits Times, 22 April 2022, More migrant workers can take part in community visits, including unvaccinated workers.

Somewhere along the way – we’re not sure when but it could have been sometime in December 2021 – the bus arrangements were discontinued.

Popular Places Pass

The latest change was the introduction of the Popular Places Pass from 24 June 2022. With this came the retirement of the Exit Pass. This change meant that workers can now leave their dorms and go anywhere without need to apply for permission except that they will need to apply for the new Popular Places Pass if they intend to visit any of four localities on Sundays or public holidays. The four localities and their respective quotas for each Sunday or public holiday are:

  • Little India: 30,000
  • Jurong East: 20,000
  • Chinatown: 15,000
  • Geylang Serai: 15,000.

Outside of Sundays and public holidays, they do not need a Popular Places Pass even to visit these areas. See the 10 June 2022 story in TodayOnline.

What about Special Pass holders?

As mentioned above, all these arrangements up to 24 June 2022 hinged on workers obtaining an Exit Pass via a mobile app. Special Pass holders could not use the app.

At some point – we’re not sure when it began – MOM instituted a dual track system. There was such a thing as an Essential Errands Pass (that’s what TWC2 calls it, we don’t know what MOM calls it) which the employer could apply for to let a Special Pass holder out (e.g. for medical appointments or visits to MOM for case meetings), and a different beast known as a paper-based Exit Pass which the Special Pass holder could apply for.

The trouble with both was that there seemed to have been no clear rules how these pass applications were to be handled. TWC2 heard from workers about employers refusing to apply for Essential Errands Passes thereby causing the worker to be remain confined. There was no way to overturn an employer’s refusal. There were also workers whose application for paper-based Exit Passes were sent around to the employer or dormitory operator for approval, and quite arbitrarily, they were not approved. The worker remained unable to leave the dorm.

TWC2 had to email MOM on behalf of these workers to get them the opportunity to leave their dorms. Generally, MOM (at its headquarters) was helpful, and our intervention bore fruit. Yet it was mystifying that some workers had also reported that, prior to approaching TWC2 for help, they had directly approached the MOM officers stationed at the dorms – what MOM calls the Assurance, Care and Engagement (ACE) team – and those ACE officers had told the workers to get employer permission before a paper-based Exit Pass could be issued. It was curious how whatever policy (if any) there was at the top failed to filter down to MOM’s frontline officers, or how a situation was allowed to persist where a thoughtless absence of policy allowed frontline officers to make rules as they went along. That things were quite haphazard was more than evident from the different replies given by different ACE officers to workers. There was no consistency at all.

For the possibly hundreds of workers TWC2 heard from over this issue in the first half of 2022, all this was extremely frustrating.

TWC2 continued to badger MOM over this issue. In May and June 2022, we also tried to interest the Straits Times and Channel NewsAsia to highlight the gaping crack that Special Pass holders were left to fall into. Our efforts to get the media interested will be the focus of Part 5 of this series.

Finally, on 21 June 2022, MOM issued a definitive statement saying Special Pass holders do not need permission to exit their dormitories to visit the community. While we say “definitive”, it is only because of its clarity. MOM itself labelled the statement as an Advisory, and as we shall discuss in Part 2, questions can be raised whether such an advisory is properly aligned with law.

Here are the relevant portions of the advisory:

Removal of Essential Errands Form

Dormitory operators or employers are no longer required to submit the essential errands form to MOM to facilitate the workers’ exit from the dormitories for essential errands. This applies to all migrant workers and Special Pass holders residing in dormitories, and will take effect from 24 June 2022.

Exemption of Popular Places Pass for Special Pass Holders

From 24 June 2022, Special Pass holders residing in dormitories will no longer need to fill in a manual form for an Exit Pass to visit the community. In addition, Special Pass holders residing in dormitories will be exempted from applying for a Popular Places Pass to visit the four designated popular locations on Sundays and public holidays.

Special Pass holders residing in dormitories are allowed to visit any location in the community without applying for a pass or filling in a form. You are not allowed to restrict or disallow your Special Pass holders from visiting the community or the Recreation Centres (RCs).

Does our story end there? No. Amazingly, no. We continued to get cries for help from Special Pass holders refused permission to the leave the dorms. We continued to have to write emails to MOM.

Formal statements by MOM notwithstanding, the 27 months of lockdown and movement controls seem to have normalised the notion that employers, dormitory operators and assorted people with power have a right to confine and restrict migrant workers.

This is Long Covid in another form.

See also:

Washington Post, 10 September 2021: Singapore looks to ease coronavirus restrictions on migrant laborers after confining them for over a year

BBC, 24 September 2021: Singapore migrant workers are still living in Covid lockdown

New York Times, 30 September 2021: In lockdown for 18 months, Singapore’s migrant workers yearn for freedom.

Financial Times, 7 June 2022: Migrant workers suffer in Singapore’s hidden lockdown

Singapore’s High Commissioner to the UK, Lim Thuan Kuan, responded in a letter to the Financial Times, saying (to quote what was reported in the Straits Times on 13 June 2022) that “As we told your correspondent, currently no migrant worker who wishes to leave his dormitory is restricted from doing so.” Lim’s statement cannot be correct, as the examples we discuss in the following articles will attest. Furthermore, the Straits Times article about Lim’s letter to the Financial Times itself says that “Currently, migrant workers in dorms must apply for an exit pass to visit the community for leisure or personal purposes…” As detailed above, there are daily and weekly quotas. It only stands to reason that if the quota for a particular day has been reached, any worker wanting to go out would be denied a pass, the High Commissioner’s protestations notwithstanding.

The timing is also rather interesting. The Financial Times article highlighting movement controls over migrant workers was datelined 7 June 2022. Three days later, on 10 June 2022, media in Singapore (Channel NewsAsia, TodayOnline, Business Times, Yahoo News, etc) carried news about the ending of the Exit Pass system and the introduction of the Popular Places Pass. Typically, the media carry government announcements within hours of a press release (we could not find the press release on either MOM’s or the Ministry of Health’s website so we do not know the exact date). Was the closeness in dates mere coincidence?