1,600 worker dorms to come under single law next year in move to contain disease outbreaks quickly

The Foreign Employee Dormitories Act currently applies only to larger dorms, but will be extended to cover smaller dormitories with seven beds or more. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - About 1,600 dormitories that can house about 440,000 migrant workers will be regulated under a single law from April 1 next year, to help the authorities contain disease outbreaks more quickly and potentially improve living standards within such facilities.

The Foreign Employee Dormitories Act (Feda) will be extended to cover smaller dormitories with seven beds or more. It currently applies only to 53 larger dorms that accommodate 1,000 or more workers - these dorms have 256,000 beds in all.

The move could also pave the way for improved living standards to be implemented across existing dorms, both large and small, though the transition to these requirements is still a work in progress.

Announcing the expansion of Feda on Tuesday, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said dormitories will fall under four licence classes depending on size.

All new dorms will have to follow a set of essential living standards - such as minimum space per resident, maximum room occupancy, cleanliness and ventilation - with larger dorms subject to tighter requirements on dormitory management, resident welfare and safety.

Existing smaller dorms do not have to upgrade their infrastructure for now, though they will have to meet some new requirements from next April.

For instance, Class 1 dorms with seven to 99 beds have to report incidents that affect the safety and health of their residents to the authorities. They also have to provide a list of their residents to MOM for contact tracing.

Commercial dorms with 100 to 299 beds have to submit regular reports on their dorm management practices to MOM.

Such Class 2 dorms also need to have fire drills and a contingency plan for public health outbreaks that includes infection control measures.

Class 3 dorms with 300 to 999 beds will have to deploy traffic marshals when directed by the authorities.

MOM said existing Class 4 dorms with 1,000 beds or more can continue to operate as usual as they are already licensed under Feda.

Smaller dorms have to apply for a provisional Feda licence from next January, which will be valid for up to for two years.

Senior Minister of State for Manpower Koh Poh Koon called the move a "significant step forward" in the Government's efforts to improve workers' living environments.

He added: “We will work closely with our stakeholders on the progressive implementation of Feda over the next two years to minimise any disruption.”

Senior Minister of State for Manpower Koh Poh Koon at the media briefing on Sept 6, 2022. He said the move to expand Feda was a "significant step forward" in improving workers' living environments. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Asked why the extension of Feda does not cover dorms with six beds or less, MOM said this is aligned with the current cap on the number of unrelated tenants allowed to stay in public or private homes, which is no more than six people.

Dorms with six or fewer residents make up 0.2 per cent of the overall bed supply for work permit holders, MOM added. They are employer-run and regulated under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act.

The decision to expand Feda was announced in March last year, nearly a year after Covid-19 had spread like wildfire within the migrant worker community, sparking months of movement restrictions and casting a spotlight on issues such as overcrowding and poor living conditions.

Manpower Minister Tan See Leng, who was Second Minister for Manpower then, had said the experience containing the spread of Covid-19 in worker dorms highlighted the need for MOM to strengthen its regulatory levers.

Expanding Feda will allow MOM to raise and enforce housing standards very quickly across various dorm types and sizes, and to introduce new standards to make dormitory living more resilient to public health risks, Dr Tan had said.

More details were supposed to be given in the second half of last year, but this was delayed until Tuesday as the authorities said they needed more time to engage dorm operators and other parties on infrastructure constraints and the impact of imposing new licensing requirements.

Currently, all worker dorms, including those not regulated under Feda, are subject to basic standards set by various government agencies, covering areas such as building and fire safety as well as minimum living and hygiene standards.

Feda, which came into force in 2016, imposes additional requirements in areas such as public health and safety, security and public order, and the provision of social and commercial facilities and services.

As at March last year, about two in five of the 280,000 migrant workers living in dorms stayed in those that were not covered by the law. These dorms are smaller facilities that include temporary quarters at construction sites, converted industrial spaces and non-governmental organisation shelters.

Feda-regulated dorms are licensed, and MOM officers regularly inspect them to ensure compliance.

In September last year, improved standards for worker dorms were announced, including a cap of 12 residents in each room, mandatory en-suite toilets and better ventilation, but these requirements will be imposed only on newly built dorms.

Existing dorms will transition to the new standards in a phased manner, MOM had said, with more details supposed to be announced earlier this year.

MOM on Tuesday said it is still engaging employers and dormitory operators on the transition.

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