Dorm operators raise concerns about higher costs due to improved standards for new dorms in S'pore

The improved standards come after a year-long review and pilot scheme in Quick Build Dormitories. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Dormitory operators raised concerns about higher costs from improved standards for new migrant worker dormitories announced Friday (Sept 17), while employers expressed uncertainty about the impact on their bottom line.

Migrant worker groups welcomed the move to impose the standards on smaller dorms, but felt some of the changes were underwhelming.

Centurion Corporation, which manages eight dorms under the Westlite brand, said the new specifications such as separated sewage lines for each block will lead to higher costs.

While these standards will apply first to two new purpose-built dorms (PBDs) that the Government will build and own, the firm said operators would still bear higher costs when leasing the dorm.

"We believe the increase in cost will have to borne by the ecosystem as a whole, shared between dormitory operators, employers, Government and the end consumers," it said in a statement.

The firm will also have to review and determine the extent to which its existing dorms can be retrofitted to meet the new requirements.

However, its chief executive, Mr Kong Chee Min, told The Straits Times that even with the added costs, he believes there is still strong demand for good quality dormitories and caring dorm operators here.

Mr Eugene Aw, director of RT Group, which manages several factory-converted dorms, said installing an en-suite toilet in every room will be a major challenge. He estimated that one toilet could cost about $30,000 and require an overhaul of the piping and sewage system. Multiplied over 20 to 30 rooms, this would be a sizeable amount for smaller dorm operators.

He said he has heard that the Government is looking into providing support to help existing dorm operators transition to the new standards.

"Our inclination is to start retrofitting our dorms as soon as possible once any support package is announced."

Dormitory Association Singapore president Johnathan Cheah, who is also managing director of S11 Dormitories, said the association will help the industry to transition to the new standards. A mindset change is needed to ensure that the requirements are implemented effectively, he added.

The association will conduct a study to understand the living habits of migrant workers in order to make adjustments to the current dorm structure.

Mr Hooi Yu Koh, chief executive of construction firm Kori Holdings, said he has no problem paying a bit more for his workers to have a better living environment, but the cost increase has to be reasonable.

He currently pays about $350 a month for each of his 170 workers living in PBDs.

If the price of a bed space in new dorms is below $400 a month, Mr Hooi said he would have no issues with moving his workers there.

"It is about time that there are some improvements to the dorms, the facilities and the living space," he added, noting that it is still unclear how much employers would need to pay for workers to live in the improved dorms.

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Mr Alex Au, vice-president of migrant rights group Transient Workers Count Too, said it is good that the new standards will apply to smaller dorms.

But the new occupancy cap of 12 workers per room is underwhelming, he said, calling for a cap of four residents per room.

"Pre-Covid-19, many rooms already had 12 people, though there were rooms with 16 or 20 people. If this contributed to the spread last year, how is it going to be any different this year or next year?"

While acknowledging it will be a mammoth task to retrofit all existing dorms to meet the new standards, Mr Au suggested that the authorities impose some of the occupancy restrictions without the infrastructural changes in the interim.

In a Facebook post, the National Trades Union Congress-backed Migrant Workers' Centre said it will continue to collect feedback from migrant workers, and urged them to report errant companies that flout the standards.

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