ST reporter's taste of life in an 'HDB-style' dorm for workers

Left: ST reporter Aw Cheng Wei with his three roommates at Woodlands Westlite, where he spent three nights earlier this month. Workers typically sleep on double-decker beds with plywood boards. Workers frequent this supermarket stocked with items fro
Above: ST reporter Aw Cheng Wei with his three roommates at Woodlands Westlite, where he spent three nights earlier this month. Workers typically sleep on double-decker beds with plywood boards. Workers frequent this supermarket stocked with items from India, China and Bangladesh. It is located steps away from the entrance of their residential blocks.ST PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG
Left: ST reporter Aw Cheng Wei with his three roommates at Woodlands Westlite, where he spent three nights earlier this month. Workers typically sleep on double-decker beds with plywood boards. Workers frequent this supermarket stocked with items fro
Workers enjoying a game of basketball at Woodlands Westlite dorm after a hard day's work. Completed last July, it is one of the larger and better-equipped dormitories for foreign workers here.ST PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG
Workers enjoying a game of basketball at Woodlands Westlite dorm after a hard day's work. Completed last July, it is one of the larger and better-equipped dormitories for foreign workers here.
Workers frequent this supermarket stocked with items from India, China and Bangladesh. It is located steps away from the entrance of their residential blocks.ST PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG

Aw Cheng Wei spends four days and three nights staying in a Woodlands foreign worker dormitory with an HDB apartment theme to get a sense of the workers' living conditions and find out how they spend their time.

In a part of Woodlands overlooking the Sembawang River, two high-rise blocks offer three-bedroom apartments and amenities ranging from basketball courts to a gym and supermarket.

Woodlands Westlite is almost like a Housing Board estate and is populated by people of three dominant nationalities - Indian, Bangladeshi and Chinese. Others include Thai and Myanmar nationals.

Its 2,500 residents live in apartments that are like four-room HDB flats, with four sleeping in each of the three bedrooms, and sharing a living room, two toilets and a kitchen. At most purpose-built foreign- worker dormitories here, more than 10 workers sleep in one room.

 

Woodlands Westlite, which was completed last July, is one of the larger and better-equipped dormitories for foreign workers here.

The HDB apartment theme is a new concept that Westlite, one of Singapore's biggest dormitory operators, is trying out, said dormitory manager Robert Lau.

KEEPING THE PEACE

I think it helps to maintain harmony if we don't argue about living habits.


LIVING IN A COMMUNITY

I really like living here because it is so clean and convenient...It feels like a community and people get along.

MR WIN KYAW, 29, who is from Myanmar, on life in Woodlands Westlite. He used to live on site at the catering company he works for until last year.

Having four workers to a room allows more privacy, he said, and is aimed at helping those who work in shifts. "Whenever a worker comes back from his shift, he can turn on the lights without disturbing too many of his co-workers," he said.

Earlier this month, the dorm opened its doors to The Sunday Times and allowed this reporter to stay there for four days.

Like HDB blocks, the two blocks at Woodlands Westlite have void decks with facilities such as television rooms. Located in an industrial area in Woodlands, the dorm is relatively accessible - workers can take buses from three MRT stations to reach the dorm.

The convenience and facilities, however, do not come cheap - beds cost $280 to $300 a month, more than double that at some dorms.

In the evenings, after a hard day's work, workers return to the dorm on bicycles, pick-up trucks and lorries. Some walk.

Before they head to their units, they pick up groceries at a supermarket stocked with frozen meat and other food and daily necessities from their hometowns.

Round the corner from the supermarket, a restaurant serving mostly curry is open until 11pm. Workers who want to unwind with a can of beer can also do so at the tables provided or grass patches nearby.

"It's very convenient," said Indian construction worker Ahmad Amaraguru, 29, who lives on the fifth floor. "I don't have to carry rice from the (nearest) MRT stations like Woodlands or Sembawang."

His colleague, Mr Arun Pandiyan, 24, added: "I don't need to go to Little India to buy food from my home, so I can relax more."

In a step up from HDB estates, Woodlands Westlite boasts better security - residents enter via an electronic gantry using a keycard that has their photo, name and unit details. They also have to undergo a face recognition system.

Mr Lau said: "It helps to protect our residents and facilities from trespassers who may not stay at this dormitory."

Once the workers are back in their units, they often unwind by speaking to their wives and children or catching up on their favourite television programmes - but not before they have dinner.

Curry is usually the grub of choice for workers from Bangladesh, India and Myanmar, who often cook curry with fish, chicken or mutton with vegetables, and eat it with rice.

The workers, who usually cook in pairs, take turns to watch the pot while their flatmates take a shower.

For those who cannot find spices from home, they make do with what the supermarket has to offer.

Mr Win Kyaw, 29, who is from Myanmar and works in catering here, prepares his dinner with Chinese chilli oil and Indian curry spices.

Cooking helps the workers to save more money to remit home.

About 10 workers said they send home more than three-quarters of their pay, which can range from $1,200 to $2,800, to siblings, parents or their wives and children.

Each meal costs about $5 and is shared by two workers, said Mr Ahmad. They also cook enough to pack for lunch the next day.

Breakfast is coffee and a few slices of bread. Mr Ahmad said: "Waking up is hard already."

Bangladeshi and Indian workers in the same apartment exchange recipes - the former prefer curry cooked with tamarind and the latter, with masala or ground spices.

At about 8pm, they sit on the floor in a circle around the living room to have dinner. In quieter rooms where workers work in shifts or have different schedules, they eat alone or with a friend.

Mr Win Kyaw was watching a Korean drama on a local TV channel while having dinner with his colleague. "I can learn English because I try to read the subtitles," he said.

After dinner, workers wander off alone to the corridor, open grass patches or the first floor, where the signal is stronger, to call their wives or children on Skype or FaceTime. Wi-Fi is provided, a luxury compared with most basic dormitories.

Those who are more fitness-conscious may head to the gym, open fitness area or the courts where they can enjoy a game or two of cricket or basketball. Some also head to the games room to play pool or Bangladeshi carrom.

"We can play with people from other countries or talk to them," said Mr Win Kyaw, who likes to play pool. "Anyone who wants to play can join in."

The games also help bring workers together, especially Chinese labourers who may find it harder to integrate into the community as they cannot speak English unlike workers from other countries.

Mr Yang Guo Lei, a 36-year-old lorry driver from China, said it was hard to connect with his flatmates from India because of their different habits. For example, he and the other Chinese tend not to wear shoes in their rooms, and he would remind the Indian residents to remove their footwear when entering his room, which he shares with three other Chinese workers.

"They respect me," said Mr Yang in Mandarin. "So I wear slippers when I go into the living room (like my Indian flatmates), something I am still getting used to. But I think it helps to maintain harmony if we don't argue about living habits."

His Indian flatmates would greet him when he returns home from work and try to clean up the kitchen after they are done cooking, which Mr Yang appreciates.

"I work in a catering company so I bring food and fruits back for everyone to share," said Mr Yang, who is called "Da Ge" or big brother, even by his Indian flatmates.

By 10.30pm, workers start heading back to their units. They sleep on double-decker beds with plywood boards, which they say keeps the room cooler. They can ask for mattresses, but few do. Some use straw mats to soften the hard surface and lay their heads on pillows.

"We also do not need to wash (mattresses or bedsheets)," said Mr Pandiyan. "When you have so many (sweaty men) who live in one room, there can be a strong smell and we may need to wash more often."

At Westlite, checks are conducted once a month to make sure that units are well kept.

While the hygiene standards were largely good for a dorm, there were cockroaches or bugs at night in the bedroom this reporter was sleeping in, likely a result of food waste not regularly cleared in the kitchens.

Overall, most residents are happy to call this place home.

Mr Win Kyaw, who used to live on the premises of his catering company until last year, said: "I really like living here because it is so clean and convenient... It feels like a community and people get along."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 27, 2016, with the headline 'A taste of life in an 'HDB-style' dorm for workers'. Print Edition | Subscribe