Tougher rules to raise the bar at large dormitories

Those who flout each new rule face a fine of up to $50,000, a maximum jail term of one year, or both. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Those who flout each new rule face a fine of up to $50,000, a maximum jail term of one year, or both. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Compulsory licensing scheme to improve workers' living conditions

Operators of dormitories for foreign workers with at least 1,000 beds will be licensed from the second half of this year, under a new law passed by Parliament yesterday.

They will be governed by strict rules that require them to provide facilities such as ATMs, minimarts and even game rooms so that the workers can shop and play without leaving the premises.

Other must-haves include sick bays and quarantine areas for any outbreak of an infectious disease.

These measures have a specific purpose: to regulate the running of large-scale housing for foreign workers, said Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin yesterday when presenting the Foreign Employee Dormitories Bill,

Those who flout each new rule face a fine of up to $50,000, a maximum jail term of one year, or both.

But those who run such large dorms without a licence can expect more severe penalties: a maximum fine of $500,000, jail of up to two years, or both. These will be doubled for repeat offenders.

A commissioner will be appointed with wide-ranging powers that include arresting errant operators.

This new law, which will help improve living conditions for the 200,000 or so foreign workers living in large dormitories, comes amid the construction of a growing number of such premises.

Mr Tan expects "the proportion of foreign workers staying in larger dormitories within the (licensing) threshold to increase".

The new legislation also adds to the existing rules on hygiene, safety and minimum living space that currently govern all foreign worker dorms in Singapore.

Operators of large dorms have six months to apply for a licence, after the law takes effect in the second half of this year. The licence is valid for up to three years.

Existing dorm operators will get financial help to renovate their premises to meet the minimum standards, said Mr Tan.

Most of the 11 MPs who spoke supported the Bill but several expressed concerns, like the emergence of double standards as the new law does not apply to smaller dorms. Mr Yeo Guat Kwang (Ang Mo Kio GRC) fears employers could favour smaller, cheaper and less tightly regulated dorms.

But MPs like Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) felt the law provided a timely opportunity for Singapore to look at how foreign workers are treated. "Let us take this opportunity to examine the overall welfare of our foreign workers," she said.

Workers' Party MP Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) suggested the Government build and manage some dormitories that will set the standard for the industry.

In his wrap-up before the Bill was put to the vote, Mr Tan said that "as more of these purpose- built dorms come on stream, we will also begin to take a stricter view about how workers are housed elsewhere, and therefore you will begin to see a lot more of them shifting towards the purpose-built dorms".

He stressed that smaller dorms outside the law will continue to be regulated under existing regulations that come under several government bodies. But the minister did not rule out further changes to the law, saying it does not preclude the possibility of "an overarching Bill that brings in together everything".

tohyc@sph.com.sg