Each time we visit a dormitory, we’re struck by how there’s laundry everywhere.

By Tay W T

At first glance, laundry and access to laundry services may not count as the top priority or biggest worry of a migrant worker in Singapore. Yet, it can frequently grate on workers living in dorms.

As construction projects resume post-COVID, worker inflows have pushed purpose-built dormitories to maximum capacities. Inevitably, there is pressure on the available facilities. According to a webpage from the Ministry of Manpower, purpose-built dormitories are “specially designed” to have amenities, services, and recreational facilities for the workers, including dedicated laundry services. It is timely to inquire whether the basic need of access to laundry facilities and services is met.

This is especially so with the expansion of coverage of the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act (FEDA) from April 2023 to include dormitories consisting of at least seven beds. FEDA is a key piece of legislation that sets out what is required from dormitories in terms of living space, associated services and dormitory management. Currently, FEDA necessitates there be “sufficient laundry facilities for residents”. But “sufficient” is vague and subjective, and this study suggests that many workers still face challenges and difficulties in doing their laundry.

Provision for laundry is fundamentally important for all migrant workers. The proper washing and drying of clothes is crucial to maintaining personal hygiene, not to mention preventing bacteria and disease from spreading. Access can be understood both in terms of physical accessibility (enough washing machines and dryers to accommodate all dormitory residents) and financial accessibility (prices are not prohibitively expensive).

Over the course of a month, I spoke with several workers about the laundry facilities in their accommodation. These conversations took place in the TWC2 office, at TWC2’s Cuff Road Project (TCRP) and when TWC2 held an event at Prime Lodge dormitory. Through mixed methods ranging from semi-structured interviews to casual conversations, I found that despite the FEDA regulation to provide “sufficient laundry facilities”, there did not seem to be any baseline standard for laundry service provision. Rather, there are myriad arrangements – some more problematic than others. In this short essay, I detail some of the challenges and difficulties faced by workers in accessing laundry services. They point to the need for baseline standards and better regulation, rather than let dormitory operators do as they deem fit.

Not enough (affordable) washing machines

A number of workers I spoke to found the availability of washing machines within their dormitories inadequate. Of course, this is hardly generalisable due to the small sample of workers that were interviewed (n=10). These ten men lived in different dormitories – and different types of dormitories, spanning from Purpose-Built Dormitories, Factory-Converted Dormitories, to HDB flats – but the point is that without any specific regulation, such as a ratio of workers to washing machines and dryers, there will be some workers who have a more difficult time doing their laundry due to inadequate access.

One worker from a dormitory in Tuas told me that in a room of 16 men, there was only one washing machine. Considering that many workers have limited time to do their washing in the evening or on Sunday, he expressed that one machine was just not enough for all of them who want to wash their clothes at around the same time. “Not enough [for] 16 men”, and because of this, “three person, four person [have to] wash [their clothes] together.”

Ironically, one washing machine for 16 men would be a fantastically favourable ratio when compared to what some other workers that I spoke to had. A worker from a dormitory in Kranji said his building of 156 residents had to share two washing machines and one dryer among them. I saw this absurdly poor ratio myself when I visited Prime Lodge dormitory, where I found that most workers were hand-washing their clothes. As seen in the image below, for a block consisting of about 400 men, there were only two washing machines at the bottom floor of the block. When I spoke with one of the men living here, he said that with so few machines, “many persons self washing”. They did their laundry by hand. When almost 400 men need access to laundry facilities but have to share two washing machines, it raises the question whether this complies with the FEDA regulation for “sufficient laundry facilities”.

Two washing machines for a block of about 400 men.

And yet, even though it was a Sunday, we hardly saw anyone using these precious two machines. Affordability is evidently another major concern. Stickers on the machines displayed the price of $3 for a wash cycle of 30 minutes. For workers who have starting salaries of $18 to $20 a day, washing their clothes in a washing machine just once costs them more than an hour of their daily wages. If they have to do laundry frequently – given the nature of construction work, this is likely – the compounded cost of using these machines will prove to be a luxury that many workers cannot afford.

Mass laundry services

Another concern raised by a number of workers was in relation to communal mass laundry services. In this arrangement, offered by some dormitories, workers had to place their soiled clothes in a bag outside their room every morning (except Sunday). The bags would be collected for mass washing and drying, and returned to the workers in the evening.

While this sounds like a highly convenient way for workers to get their laundry done, many workers complained that the “washing… no good”. Both the workers whom I interviewed and who had such a system in their dorm, told me that the clothes, on return, made them itchy. While they were unable to pinpoint the exact cause, a likely explanation may lie in the detergent or other chemicals used. Regardless of the reason, the fact remained that these men were unable to wear the clothes that had been washed this way.

Adding to the unhappiness, a worker pointed out that he still had to pay for the mass washing arrangement whether he used it or not. He said that this was “not fair” to him. He had not been sending his laundry in not because he did not want to, but because the clothes that were returned caused itching and rash. Yet, he still had $15 deducted from his wages each month for this service. It was not as if he had no other laundry expenditure: he had to buy washing powder to wash his own clothes by hand, let alone the time spent doing so.

What these workers’ accounts indicate is that having mass laundry arrangements is only good if the service quality is satisfactory. Clothes coming back and causing itch renders the arrangement useless for the affected residents.

Space for drying

Lastly, there is a lack of proper drying spaces for workers in some dormitories. During TWC2’s visit to Prime Lodge dormitory, I observed that workers were generally housed 10 – 12 men per room, but each upper-floor room had only about 4.5 metres of balcony in which they could hang their wet laundry. This being clearly insufficient, there were clothes drying on gates and fences too, as seen from the photo below.

Quite plainly, there is a lack of provision in the very design of dormitory blocks. A worker that I spoke to said the obvious: “no more places” to hang their clothes, towels and bedlinen.

On the surface, laundry may not seem like a major issue in our lives, but it is a regular necessity. “When men, who have to work long hours six days a week, are housed in dense quarters such as our dormitories, the squeeze on time and space is heightened,” explains Alex Au, the vice-president of TWC2. “When salaries are low, cost becomes an issue. What begins as a minor issue escalates into a significant daily or weekly aggravation.”

He suggests that Singapore should revisit the design requirements of dormitories and the standards set out in law by FEDA. “We all place importance on hygiene, but hygiene is not just a personal matter. It is also a policy issue.”