Tuas View Square a home away from home for foreign workers

HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Workers returning to their dorm after a day's work. The dormitory town is near workplaces such as the shipyards in Jurong.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Workers returning to their dorm after a day's work. The dormitory town is near workplaces such as the shipyards in Jurong.
STOCKING UP ON GROCERIES: Dorm residents buying fruit from a makeshift street stall. Some Singaporeans do brisk business selling mobile phone cards and groceries to the workers.
STOCKING UP ON GROCERIES: Dorm residents buying fruit from a makeshift street stall. Some Singaporeans do brisk business selling mobile phone cards and groceries to the workers.
HOME IS JUST A PHONE CALL AWAY: Workers getting their phone SIM cards topped up by the road outside their dormitories. Mobile business owner Jonathan Koh said his customers spend $20 to $30 each to top up the cards.
HOME IS JUST A PHONE CALL AWAY: Workers getting their phone SIM cards topped up by the road outside their dormitories. Mobile business owner Jonathan Koh said his customers spend $20 to $30 each to top up the cards.
MINI LITTLE INDIA: More than 10 factories in Tuas View Square have been refurbished into dormitories for foreign workers. It has become a kind of mini dormitory town and a home away from home to more than 5,000 workers, mainly from India and Banglade
MINI LITTLE INDIA: More than 10 factories in Tuas View Square have been refurbished into dormitories for foreign workers. It has become a kind of mini dormitory town and a home away from home to more than 5,000 workers, mainly from India and Bangladesh.ST PHOTOS: CAROLINE CHIA

As the sun sets on Tuas, the industrial estate in western Singapore roars to life. At a time and place where factory workers would have filed out of buildings to go home, thousands of foreign workers are returning to their home away from home. Welcome to Tuas View Square, a mini dormitory city where over 5,000 foreign workers live.

As the sun sets on Tuas, a remote area in a remote industrial estate gets busy.

Male workers clad in T-shirts or overalls stained with mud and grime get off covered lorries and file into factory buildings.

They are not reporting for work but going home after calling it a day at shipyards and construction sites all over Singapore.

Welcome to Tuas View Square, a 500m stretch of road where more than 10 factories have been refurbished into dormitories for foreign workers. It has become a kind of mini dormitory town and a home away from home to more than 5,000 workers, mainly from India and Bangladesh. It's almost a little Little India.

About five years ago, the scene at sunset would have been one of workers from Singapore and Malaysia filing out of the factories in casual attire after changing out of grey, white and blue uniforms.

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Then, factories owned by multinational companies churned out goods like electronic parts and chemicals, said shopkeepers in the area.

But as companies relocated to cheaper locations overseas, the factories were turned into dorms by construction and marine firms over the last five years.

There are about 700 factory-converted dorms for foreign workers in industrial estates across Singapore. They house an estimated 100,000 or more foreign workers - about 25 per cent of the work permit holders in lower-skilled jobs in sectors such as construction and marine.

This dorm town in Tuas View Square, where Singapore's largest rubbish incinerator is in sight, is as far from anyone's backyard as can be. While barbed wire on fences or gantries remain, the security measures are unnecessary: Hardly anyone from outside visits.

In the evenings, some denizens of this nearly all-male town - there are only a handful of women, mainly shopkeepers - sit cross-legged on roadside kerbs to chat and drink beer.

The men, some clad in shirts and sarongs, also go on bicycles to visit friends in other dorms.

"I like the quiet," said an Indian shipyard worker. "I am around languages and people I know."

Some dorms have canteens where curries and rice are served round the clock; others house mini-marts and phone shops.

Some Singaporeans do brisk business here selling groceries and mobile phone cards. Mr Jonathan Koh, who is in his late 30s, said each night he and his two staff serve a few hundred workers, who spend $20 to $30 each to top up their phone cards.

"Business is quite good. There are few mobile phone shops here and it takes too long for the workers to travel outside," he said.

Dorm operators have had good business too. A bed in dorms here now costs around $250 a month per worker, up from $100 to $150 five years ago, say employers.

While the area has a relaxed atmosphere, the conditions in the factory dorms are not as good as those in purpose-built dorms, which cost more and have better facilities.

There is an obvious lack of recreational facilities, an issue also raised by a committee that looked into the Dec 8 Little India riots.

A Malaysian who works for a drinks company in Tuas View Square said: "The workers spend most of their free time sitting outside the dorms. There should be sports facilities for them."

Mr K. Ganesh, 49, who runs a mini-mart and canteen, said every night, hundreds of workers come by to buy a few cans of beer each. They munch on murukku as they watch old Tamil movies on large screens. "The workers do hard work. They have a few cans of beer to relax," he said.

The Straits Times wanted to go inside the rooms, but a few owners of the buildings in Tuas View Square declined requests to visit.

Some of the dorms look neat and clean from the outside. However, most of the factory-converted premises appear cramped.

Rows of damp uniforms hang on dusty window louvres. Some windows are boarded up, others show double-decker beds.

Of 20 workers interviewed, only a few said their living areas were clean. Most complained of filth. There are rats, ants and mosquitoes in their rooms, said the men. The pests are drawn to the food left around as there are no storage areas or refrigerators.

A Bangladeshi worker said: "The rats bite our feet when we sleep at night. We set up rat traps but haven't caught any so far."

Another worker said: "My home in India is much cleaner."

Others are frustrated by the lack of toilets, which often get choked. "We have to wait for more than an hour every night and in the morning to use the toilet," said a worker from India.

Some of the dorms have kitchens, which the men say are dirty most of the time. Cleaners wash the dorms infrequently.

But it's not all bad.

While this dormitory town is far from residential areas, it is near workplaces such as the shipyards in Jurong.

ameltan@sph.com.sg

awcw@sph.com.sg