SINGAPORE - To help the authorities prevent and more quickly contain disease outbreak in the dormitories, all dormitories will be regulated under a single law - the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act (Feda), Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng said on Wednesday (March 3).
He was responding to MPs including labour MP Fahmi Aliman (Marine Parade GRC) and Ms Rachel Ong (West Coast GRC), who on Tuesday (March 2) called for dormitory standards to be raised.
"Our experience in containing this pandemic in the dorms highlighted the need to strengthen our regulatory levers in order to enable us to raise and enforce housing standards very quickly across various dormitory types and sizes, and to introduce new housing standards to make dormitory living more resilient to public health risks," Dr Tan said in Parliament during the debate on the Manpower Ministry's budget.
Currently, all dormitories, including those not regulated under Feda, are subject to a set of requirements set by various government agencies, covering areas such as building and fire safety, minimum living and hygiene standards.
But Feda, which came into force in 2016, imposes additional requirements on dorms in areas such as public health and safety, security and public order, and provision of social and commercial facilities and services.
It applies only to larger dormitories that accommodate 1,000 or more workers.
Dr Tan said that MOM will engage stakeholders in the coming months to review expanding the scope of Feda, and to consider the details of the regulatory framework.
It hopes to complete the review and provide more details in the second half of this year.
The review will allow MOM to directly and quickly impose safe living and infection control requirements in the event of an outbreak, said Dr Tan, noting that requirements for dorms to have more isolation beds, observe stringent infection control measures and ensure dormitory residents' well-being during the pandemic had to be implemented for dorms not regulated under Feda through the temporary Covid-19 Control Order for Foreign Employee Dormitories.
Bringing all dorms under Feda will also enable MOM to implement a consistent framework of housing standards across dormitories of different sizes and types, with a set of common requirements that apply across the board on issues such as cleanliness, space and ventilation, added Dr Tan.
Currently, three in five of the 280,000 migrant workers living in dormitories stay in 50 large dormitories with at least 1,000 beds that are regulated by Feda.
The rest of them stay in smaller facilities not regulated by Feda, such as temporary quarters at construction sites or converted industrial spaces.
Improving dormitory standards and helping workers
The Government is conducting a holistic review on improved living standards that are being trialled at the Quick Build Dormitories (QBDs) since last September, with a view to applying them to future new dormitories, said Dr Tan.
This includes consultations with public health experts, employers, migrant workers, as well as non-governmental organisations, he said in response to Ms Cheng Li Hui (Tampines GRC) and Non-Constituency MP Hazel Poa, who asked whether dormitory standards will be adjusted and how the higher costs arising from improved standards will be managed.
Dr Tan said the new standards are expected to be finalised later this year.
For existing dorms, the Government will consider how to progressively improve standards so that price fluctuations will not be steep. At the same time, it will ensure competitive bed rental prices and a stable housing supply during the transition period, said Dr Tan, with updates to be given in due course.
The Government is also studying the possibility of developing upcoming purpose-built dormitories on a different model compared to the present one, where private dorm operators bid for a plot of land to build and operate a dorm, said Dr Tan. Findings will also be shared in due course.
It will draw on its experiences from piloting the QBDs, which are meant to serve as a test bed for the Government to pilot improved standards for dorms before it decides on specifications for new permanent ones.
For instance, each QBD room is capped at 10 residents and has en-suite toilets to reduce inter-mixing and minimise transmission risks from shared facilities. QBDs today account for more than 25,000 bed spaces.
In addition to infrastructure, the Government is studying how contact tracing has helped to accurately identify and isolate close contacts in the event of a public health outbreak, said Dr Tan.
Addressing migrant workers' welfare
The Government will also examine how long-term access to primary healthcare for migrant workers can be sustained in a cost-effective and culturally sensitive way, said Dr Tan, who noted that the Covid-19 outbreak has highlighted pre-existing gaps in primary healthcare available to migrant workers.
"Often, migrant workers might delay or avoid seeking medical attention until the condition worsens significantly, with negative consequences for health, employment and work outcomes both for the worker as well as their employers," said Dr Tan.
Since the outbreak, the Government has made it easier for migrant workers to access good primary care, and this will need to be sustained to detect public health threats early.
Moving forward, access to primary healthcare can be improved by, for instance, having every migrant worker registered with a designated medical centre or general practitioner clinic near where they live and work in order to foster better doctor-patient relationships, said Dr Tan.
MOM is also reviewing medical insurance coverage for migrant workers to help employers better manage medical expenses, and to give both employers and workers a greater peace of mind, he said. An update will be given later this year.
The ministry's Assurance, Care and Engagement (Ace) Group will also create a more structured ecosystem to engage workers, he said. This includes tapping existing volunteer networks to set up a network of migrant worker volunteers in every dormitory with 100 or more residents.
In response to Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) and Workers' Party MP Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC), who voiced concerns about the recruitment process of migrant workers, including the high fees they pay, Dr Tan said that MOM has been stepping up education and enforcement efforts over the years.
Mr Perera also asked if MOM could consider setting up a standardised job portal both for workers already in Singapore and those looking for opportunities here.
Dr Tan said that while this is a possible option, different employers tap various channels to recruit employees, be they employment agencies, employee referrals or direct hiring from source countries.
If the Government mandates a centralised portal, it may limit the flexibility of employers to address their hiring needs, said Dr Tan. MOM will work with stakeholders to explore the various suggestions raised to address the issues of recruitment costs, he added.
He rejected Leader of the Opposition and WP chief Pritam Singh's (Aljunied GRC) call to require errant employers to pay foreign employees a penalty amounting to six months of salary for each instance of salary underpayment.
Dr Tan said MOM already requires such employers to make full restitution of salary owed to the employee. If prosecuted, they also have to pay a fine or be jailed, he added.
"We will facilitate the transfer of affected workers who want to continue to work in Singapore to a new employer," he said.
"This would assure workers that they can continue to stay in Singapore to earn an income when they report their employers for salary underpayment."
Protecting domestic workers
Minister of State for Manpower Gan Siow Huang also said on Wednesday that MOM has been reviewing measures to better support foreign domestic workers (FDWs) and protect them from abuse, citing the outrage over the recently reported case of Myanmar national Piang Ngaih Don, who was cruelly tortured and starved by her employer over several months and eventually killed.
Some possible measures that MOM is looking into include mandatory off days, as well as requiring employment agents to conduct interviews after newly arrived workers start work with employers, said Ms Gan. This will give abused workers better opportunities to seek help, she said.
Currently, all FDWs are entitled to a weekly rest day, but employers can also compensate them if they agree to work on their rest day. ST understands that under the possible measure that MOM is looking into, employers could be required to give their domestic workers a regular rest day, and will no longer have the option of compensating workers if they agree to work in lieu of rest.
Other measures include working with doctors to better identify signs of abuse or distress, ensuring that employment agents have an interest to ensure that the workers they emplace settle in well, as well as to expand outreach and engagement efforts of partner organisations like the Centre for Domestic Employees.
More updates will be given in due course, said the ministry.