Don't blame migrant workers for coronavirus spread

On Thursday night, I was on a phone call with N, a 29-year-old Bangladeshi construction worker who has been here for eight years. He is now quarantined in Cochrane Lodge I.

Had I written this sentence a month ago, I might have to explain to readers that this is a licensed dormitory in the north of the island housing thousands of foreign workers. I probably don't need to now.

Cochrane was one of the first few dormitories with cases of Covid-19. The vast majority of new cases are now linked to these sites.

For the average Singaporean, these workers were probably invisible until this "explosion" of coronavirus infections.

When my colleague Joyce Lim reported on squalid conditions at S11 Dormitory @ Punggol earlier this month, it came as a shock to many.

Although the situation at that time might have been worse as it was being turned into an isolation area, foreign workers here have always lived in generally bad conditions.

Since 2008, several migrant worker groups have called for better workers' housing after dengue fever, Zika virus and even chickenpox outbreaks over the years.

In a March 22 letter to The Straits Times headlined "Employers' practices leave foreign workers vulnerable to infection", Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) president Deborah D. Fordyce said the risk of a cluster among workers at dormitories is "undeniable", with so many squeezed into a room.

A week later, the first cluster at S11 was reported.

Yet, based on letters and comments sent to the media, some of the concern caused by these alarming numbers is not for the workers.

One reader who called The Straits Times last week asked the media to "investigate whether these workers are gaming the system", wondering why "all of a sudden so many hundreds of them are ill at the same time".

A Facebook user said foreign workers should be sent home, as they were making Singapore's Covid-19 case numbers look bad.

A letter from a Lianhe Zaobao reader blamed foreign workers, who she said come from backward countries with poor hygiene habits like eating with their hands, which Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam called out on Friday for being xenophobic.

Sadly, the comments reveal a rather ugly side to what some Singaporeans think of migrant workers, even as other locals have rallied to donate tens of thousands of dollars to efforts helping them.

To speak of those stricken with the disease as just digits that will make the national count "look bad", or to suggest workers are faking illness, exhibits a lack of empathy at the very least.

In a Facebook post responding to the Zaobao letter, MP Zainal Sapari said he is proud of eating with his hands, which is part of his culture and has "nothing to do with personal hygiene or bad habits".

"Some of the comments...reek of racism and prejudices of the culture of other races," he said.

Migrant workers I met while on assignment last month had already taken precautions like wearing masks and safe distancing way before they were made compulsory.

In contrast, more than a week into the circuit breaker, some locals still flout rules and have even attacked enforcement officers.

In a pandemic, a certain degree of fear is understandable. Covid-19 has been highly contagious and can be transmitted asymptomatically, and we may suspect even our own neighbours and relatives of carrying the virus.

But when confronted with high numbers at the dormitories, I would ask Singaporeans to first hear from foreign workers themselves, instead of jumping to stereotypes.

Over the course of half an hour, N spoke of many issues that he and other workers at the dormitories have continued to put up with, despite the Ministry of Manpower's (MOM) efforts. Several other worker and civil society groups have also raised these conditions.

These included cramped and ill-ventilated rooms, food that is under-cooked or tastes bad, as well as worries about not having been paid salaries for several months, leaving them unable to contact anxious families back home as their SIM cards have run out of money.

Out of desperation, some workers have taken to commenting about these issues on MOM's social media posts showcasing efforts at dormitories, risking possible retaliation from their employers and dormitory operators.

I also ask that Singaporeans think about what we take for granted.

As I called N, I did so in my own room with air-conditioning. The last time I had to share living quarters with 11 others was during national service - and, even then, the room was both spacious and well-ventilated.

We have come to expect detailed information on each day's new Covid-19 cases, and start grumbling when they have not been released yet by the evening.

N, on the other hand, said no one tells them how many cases their own dormitory has, and workers grow anxious with only the sounds of the ambulance arriving and then leaving the premises.

N's fellow countrymen, who have travelled thousands of kilometres to a foreign land, built the very apartment block I call home.

Despite their toil in building this city, few knew or cared where or how foreign workers were housed before this crisis. Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes - an attitude I, too, was guilty of.

There is much that can be done right now. For example, if you do not need your $600 Solidarity Payment, you can donate it at #HOMEFORALL Migrants - which shares it with migrant groups, including TWC2 and Home.

The money will be used to help workers with meals and supplies, improve hygiene and also Internet connectivity.

What about the longer term?

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said finger-pointing during a crisis when her team is working round the clock is not helpful, but has pledged to improve the dormitory system after the pandemic.

If the present crisis has shone a light on anything, it is that conditions at workers' dormitories were already poor even before this. Covid-19 will also not be the last pandemic to hit such workers the hardest.

I hope migrant workers will not become invisible and forgotten, and we will not once again forsake them after the pandemic passes.

• #OpinionOfTheDay is a column for younger writers in the newsroom to write about issues that matter to them and their peers.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 19, 2020, with the headline Don't blame migrant workers for coronavirus spread. Subscribe