File picture of Acacia Lodge in Buit Batok. We did not interview any worker staying here.

In September 2021, the Ministry of Manpower announced with considerable fanfare new standards for dormitory accommodation of foreign workers. The standards would apply to all new dormitories, it said. Existing dormitories would be retrofitted progressively; in March 2023, the government said that a “plan to support the retrofitting of existing worker dormitories to meet higher standards of living will be announced later in 2023, after almost two years of deliberations and discussions” – as reported in the Straits Times (Straits Times, 20 March 2023, Govt to announce plan for existing dorms to meet improved standards later in 2023: Tan See Leng).

In the meantime, numbers of migrant workers have surged, with a record-setting 415,000 workers in the construction, marine shipyard and process industries as at December 2022.  See the data here.

Members of Parliament have asked what’s being done about the problem, including the issue of escalating rental costs. In October 2022, the Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng said that “there [had] also been strong demand for bed spaces at migrant worker dormitories” and that “The average monthly rental price of dormitory beds [had] increased from $272 pre-COVID to $316 for new contracts signed in September 2022.”

What TWC2 has heard on our grapevine is that $400 may be closer to the norm now – and this is per bedspace, not per room. This is consistent with a Straits Times story that said, citing Manpower Minister Tan, that rental rates increased from “$280 per worker in the first quarter of 2021 – about the same rate as before Covid-19 – to $420 per worker in the first quarter of 2023.”  (Straits Times, 16 July 2023, Dorm rentals continue to climb despite more beds, constraining growth in foreign worker numbers).

At TWC2, there was even one instance when an employment agent told us about a $700 asking price!

In February 2023, the minister was asked what his ministry was doing about it. In his written reply, Tan said they were monitoring the situation. “The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has been monitoring the situation, and has worked closely with relevant stakeholders to make more dormitory beds available. Efforts include maximising the utilisation of existing dormitory capacity and allowing more Factory Converted Dormitories (FCDs) and Construction Temporary Quarters (CTQs).”

Maximum of 12 men per room

Among the new standards announced in September 2021 was the maximum limit of 12 men per room, where previously, dormitories used to pack 16 or even 20 men to a room. Although the new standards were intended for new dormitories, it was noted at the time that existing dormitories were nonetheless expected to reduce density to 12 men per room with immediate effect. More recently however, it has been reported that the government is no longer insisting on a maximum of 12 men in view of the bed crunch. Density is a major factor for comfort and ventilation, and this is an easy angle to explore to see how the situation is perceived by the ones most affected – the workers themselves.

We speak to four men at random one evening to get a snapshot of where things stand.

Rahman stays in a large purpose-built dormitory in Punggol. “My room have 12 bed,” he tells us, “but now only eight man.” The actual number of occupants goes up and down depending on the company’s staffing situation.

We ask whether his room has attached bathroom facilities. “No. whole floor share the bathroom.” He finds it hard to estimate how many men share the wet facilities, beyond saying “Man many have.”

Islam Din stays in what sounds like a factory-converted dormitory in Sungei Kadut. “In my dormitory, one room sleeping 26 man,” he tells us. “All bed full.” There are six rooms per floor, so the total is somewhere around 130 men per floor. They all share a common set of bathroom facilities, though the ratio isn’t too bad. “Have 20 shower, and 20 toilet,” Din adds.

Belayat stays in North Coast Dormitory in Woodlands. Like Rahman, his room is equipped with 12 beds, but in his case, all are occupied. Like Din and Rahman, there are no attached or dedicated toilet and shower facilities for his room. These are common facilities shared by eight rooms per floor, he reports.

Masud lives in Penjuru Dormitory 2, where he has to put up with 16 men per room. In his room, there is a central aisle with beds on both sides. The central aisle is only about 1 metre wide and the gap between parallel beds is just 30 – 40 cm. “So narrow, only one man can walk in or walk out,” is how he describes the cramped conditions.

Are the beds single-deck or double-deck? we ask.

“Double,” he says.

However, his room has attached bathrooms. “Two shower and two toilet,” making a ratio of eight men to each.

Masud goes on to complain about poor ventilation. “This room only have two small fans on the ceiling, not big fan, but small fan like table type, but fixed to ceiling.”

“How enough, like that?”

New dormitory standards, you say?

It looks like Singapore has a long way to go before housing conditions truly improve, and right now, there is no clear path forward. The government tends to be held hostage by employers’ cries about costs, partly because the government itself is married to the notion that unless foreign labour is cheap, Singapore’s economy will crash.