SINGAPORE - Public spaces usually filled with the lively chatter of migrant workers on the weekend were silent on Sunday (March 29).
One reason could be the increased presence of Ministry of Manpower (MOM) officers patrolling locations frequented by workers in recent weeks, to disperse large public gatherings of workers after stricter distancing rules kicked in.
The MOM announced last Wednesday that it was ramping up such efforts and could revoke the work passes of workers who did not obey orders to disperse.
On Sunday, the third week of such operations, about 130 officers went to locations islandwide, such as Lucky Plaza and Little India, for a full day - up from 40 officers last week.
Officers also made repeat visits to the same sites to make sure groups do not return after the officers leave.
The efforts, which were aided by the police and Migrant Worker Centre staff, seem to have met with results.
A field beside Kallang MRT station, normally a crowded weekend meeting place for Indonesian and Filipino domestic workers, was almost empty when The Straits Times visited at about 12.30pm.
Migrant worker groups reported similar scenes at open spaces near Lucky Plaza in Orchard Road and in Little India.
A senior MOM official said such operations helped to instruct workers on the stricter coronavirus control measures, such as the new rules against gatherings of 10 or more people and the need to stay at least 1m away from others.
"Foreign workers have an important role to help contain the spread of Covid-19. We are heartened to see that our messaging on stricter social distancing has worked well," said Ms Jeanette Har, director of well-being at MOM's foreign manpower management division.
Officers visiting the Kallang field encountered only three or four small groups of mostly foreign domestic workers (FDWs), sitting far apart from one another.
The officers were armed with posters with instructions about the rules and observing public hygiene in different languages, including Tagalog, Bahasa Indonesia and Burmese.
Ms Ana Liza Dazo, 38, from the Philippines, was at the Kallang field to have lunch with her friend after remitting money nearby.
"It's our day off and our employer said we could head out while taking care to observe the precautions," said.
These precautions included eating separately, not sharing utensils or drinks, and sitting more than 1m apart on individual picnic mats.
But this did not stop officers from asking her to pack up and go home.
Ms Har explained that picnics tend to naturally result in groups sitting closer as time progresses, and also the sharing of food, which is a transmission risk.
She also noted that MOM's advisories had said that FDWs and foreign workers should minimise time outside, unless they are conducting essential errands.
Ms Rishma, 30, from Bandung in Indonesia, said it was her employer who had encouraged her to head out while staying safe, and not to be cooped up at home.
"Outside is more relaxing, of course, after working for a full week at home. The feeling is quite 'down' when we have to stay at home," said Ms Rishma, who has worked in Singapore for seven years.
Her lunch was similarly short-lived when MOM officers came over to ask her to head home.
Ms Catherine James, executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), said employers who were understanding and empathetic are key to ensuring workers stay well-rested during the coronavirus crisis.
"Both employers and FDWs need to be fair, responsible and kind... The situation can be resolved by clear communication and offering FDWs a 'real' option to rest and unwind at home," she told ST.
She said employers should be more empathetic and find out if their helpers are worried about their families back home, and make it easier for FDWs to rest at home.
For example, they could offer a guest room in the home for their helper to rest, and including her when ordering food online.
Apart from FDWs, South Asian foreign workers were also largely absent at the usual gathering spots when ST visited them on Sunday.
At about 4pm, there were no workers at the grassy spaces in the Little India area where workers from Bangladesh and India would often gather.
The fields, which included those bounded by Owen Road, Burmah Road and Birch Road near Park Hotel Farrer Park and Masjid Angullia, had been cordoned off by MOM officers with striped barrier tape after 1 pm.
A group of about 20 MOM officers with MWC volunteers could be seen on site patrolling the now blocked-off areas, while nearby three Certis Cisco security officers also said they were rendering assistance.
A ground officer told ST that while people can still freely enter and walk across the fields, the tape was there to discourage congregation.
At the nearby Mustafa Centre, those who spoke to ST did not linger, but briskly paid for their purchases and left.
Several were highly conscious of the need to take precautions, with one worker declining to be interviewed, citing the need to be at least a metre away from others.
For instance, Mr Kalam Abu, 35, donned a mask to buy medicine from the department store and planned to head home immediately after.
Asked about the restrictions and the cordoned-off field, the construction worker from Bangladesh said: “I understand (the reason), safety first!”
Mr Chander Rao, 48, who is from India and works in the transport sector, said he used to occasionally go to the fields nearby to relax. He has been in Singapore for 24 years.
“Now I will mostly take rest day at home. It’s good, to prevent the virus,” he said.
Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) general manager Ethan Guo said migrant workers, like Singaporeans, have no desire to catch the virus or be accused of spreading it.
While Singaporeans can still enjoy the comforts of home even if they cannot go out, rest days are the only time-off migrant workers have.
But while locals get “ambassadors” to ask them to stay apart, migrant workers face enforcement officers with the threat of getting their work passes revoked.
“Are such double standards a reflection of how we treat different members of society, or simply the way different government agencies engage their stakeholders?”