Habitable housing for foreign workers

The dimensions of housing Singapore's non-resident population have grown tenfold over the decades. However, the market has proven generally resilient in catering to the various needs of this demographic, which now numbers 1.6 million - forming 29 per cent of the total population, compared with 2.9 per cent in 1970.

What has caused public discomfit from time to time has been the provision by certain employers of below-par accommodation for lower-paid foreign labour, notably construction workers. It would be scant exaggeration to describe some of these pockets of makeshift housing for foreigners as ghettoes that stand in stark contrast to the spick-and-span built environment that is the product of their labours.

Many of the over 300,000 construction workers here are well housed but there are still a proportion who are packed in quarters built at construction sites, in apartments, shophouses and temporary dormitories. Hygiene and sanitation suffer from overcrowding, workers have to sleep shoulder to shoulder, and demanding work cycles lead to soiled apparel and discarded food piling up within. In some instances, workers were made to live in shipping containers and bathe next to drains, in a shack erected above an underground sewage tank, and at other unsavoury locations.

It's a world that ordinary Singaporeans do not dwell upon until it comes uncomfortably close, as at Serangoon Gardens six years ago when residents campaigned strenuously against a foreign workers' dorm in their neighbourhood. Rather than having a sense of gratitude towards those who undertake dirty and back-breaking work shunned by Singaporeans, many mentally rationalise that foreign workers' villages might be no better than the workers' slums here and that they ought to be thankful for their higher wages.

Naturalising the poor state of such housing ought to be repugnant to any First World society. Instead, Singaporeans ought to support basic standards of human decency, tighter monitoring of such quarters, and stiffer penalties under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act for employers responsible for deplorable conditions, either wilfully or through neglect. There is no excuse for such acts, especially when there's a range of better options available, including purpose-built dorms for foreign workers. There are 200,000 beds available now in about 40 big dorms. Nine more are to be built with amenities such as cafeterias.

Alongside such efforts, it's also important for more to be done to educate workers on what is deemed inhabitable quarters and what amounts to ill-treatment at a workplace. Acceptable housing must be seen as a must rather than an indulgence.