Rosol stops by our meal program with an update, after a shopping trip to Mustafa.

Many of us indulge in a spot of retail therapy on rare days off, and migrant workers are no exception. Rosol (not his real name) arrives at our meal program restaurant one night, with some great buys in tow.

That evening, he isn’t here for dinner; he dropped by to catch up with the volunteers. He shows us a bright red shirt freshly purchased from nearby Mustafa, along with an impressive leather powerlifting belt. Unfortunately, the belt isn’t for the gym. It’s necessary support for his bad back – a remnant of a recent work injury involving a heavy air conditioning unit.

“Expensive, but good quality; I can wear every day,” he says, offering a poignant glimpse into the challenges faced by many low-wage migrant workers here. As the conversation flows, he shares another update: he’s moved into a 4-bedroom apartment in the East – with 18 other flatmates.

They are migrant workers in the construction section and each contributes S$700 in rent, supposedly inclusive of utilities. To circumvent occupancy limits, many are registered under alternative postal addresses (Rosol is properly registered). They all abide by an unspoken rule: keeping their shoes indoors to avoid drawing attention from neighbours. 

We pause to contemplate the sheer audacity of their landlord, raking in a cool $13,000 each month through what can only be described as blatant exploitation.

Curious about the logistics of such close quarters, we ask how they manage. Rosol describes how some sleep on bunk beds and others on plywood sheets they’ve scavenged.  “To avoid the bed bugs,” he adds.

Under these conditions, privacy and security are luxuries. Anyone can enter or leave the apartment and there is no storage for their personal belongingsthey live out of suitcases with flimsy luggage locks as their only defence against theft. It’s also impossible to maintain a clean living space amidst so many people, Rosol laments.

There are daily queues for basic amenities like bathrooms and kitchen facilities, and only two refrigerators to serve the entire group. Yet, despite the chaos, Rosol drops a surprising fact: this is a step up from dormitory life.

He describes the cramped living conditions in the dormitories, where occupants are squeezed into even smaller spaces with more roommates, resulting in a further loss of autonomy and privacy. 

Everyday tasks like cooking and cleaning are either disallowed or incredibly difficult due to the lack of amenities such as stoves, sinks, and washing machines. There are also no refrigerators provided, severely hindering meal preparation. To add to the challenge, occupants have to foot the bill for utilities like gas and water.

However, what truly weighs on the minds of migrant workers is the dismal location of these dormitories. Situated in remote areas far from urban conveniences, they find themselves isolated from essential services and amenities. 

Grocery shopping is a marathon endeavour that requires at least two hours of travel to reach the nearest store. Seeking medical assistance or accessing financial services like ATMs and money remittance centres may take even longer, adding to the frustration.

Further compounding their feelings of displacement is the lack of access to stores selling ingredients or food they are familiar with, as these are typically located in central areas like Little India.

In a previous article, we covered the painful realities of living in these remote dormitories. Explore this in detail and see firsthand accounts through on-the-ground video footage in Thoughtless zoning and a dorm in the middle of nowhere.

Being confined to these dormitories traps migrant workers in a relentless cycle, where they are forced to spend both time and money simply to access basic amenities — two precious commodities they can hardly afford.

Every minute spent navigating the challenges of dorm life is a minute lost to earning a livelihood or simply getting some well-deserved rest. In addition, the financial burden of having to pay for utilities and transport strains their already tight budgets, leaving little room for savings or discretionary spending.

Transitioning to a private apartment has provided Rosol with a semblance of control over his living environment, despite its overcrowded and substandard conditions. He enjoys a degree of freedom in managing his own space and establishing a routine that suits him. He also notes the comfort of being able to sleep in air-conditioning.

Moving out of the dormitory is hardly a victory in the face of larger systemic issues, but for Rosol and many others like him, this transition represents a small step towards reclaiming some normalcy and dignity.