Coronavirus: Some landlords in Singapore, fearing infection risk, turn away tenants returning from China

A thermal scanner at the arrival hall of Changi Airport's Terminal 1. Employment agents and employers are starting to see cases of landlords who are closing the door on tenants returning from China. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - Computer salesman Thomas Chua, 67, has a tenant from China who is due to return to Singapore this week.

But Mr Chua has told his tenant, a factory supervisor who has been renting a room from him for more than seven years, that he is not allowed to step into his HDB flat in Sembawang when he returns. He is also asking his tenant if he can delay his return to Singapore.

Though his tenant has told him that he did not travel to Hubei province, whose capital, Wuhan, is at the epicentre of the outbreak, he believes that there is still a risk of transmission.

"I read in the news that workers who are coming back from China will not be allowed to go back to work for 14 days in case there is a risk of them getting the coronavirus. If I let him stay in my house, what if he is infected and I get the virus?" said Mr Chua.

Employment agents and employers are starting to see cases of landlords like Mr Chua, who are closing the door on tenants returning from China.

This has left them scrambling to find alternative accommodation for the workers, who have to be placed on a leave of absence for 14 days when they return as a precautionary measure in light of the coronavirus outbreak.

The owner of a food factory, who declined to be named, said his employee, an assistant production supervisor from Sichuan province, had nowhere to go after she arrived in Singapore around midnight on Sunday (Feb 2).

"Her landlord told her that he will take her back only if she shows no symptoms after the 14-day leave of absence period is up. Though we managed to book a hotel for her, they rejected her when she arrived. She ended up hanging around at 24-hour locations outside the whole night. It's a very bad situation," said the factory owner.

After making more calls on Monday morning, he managed to contact a relative, who agreed to put up his worker temporarily in a spare house that she had been intending to rent out.

Employment agents like Mr Vincent Tan, a partner at Trust Vision Employment Agency, expect to see more of such cases.

On Sunday, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said 30,000 work pass holders who are of Chinese nationality left Singapore over the Chinese New Year break and have not returned. But not all of them live in housing estates. The authorities are gathering data on who these workers are and where they are staying in Singapore.

So far, about a third of the 80 to 100 Chinese workers placed by Mr Tan's agency who are returning to Singapore have run into issues with their landlords or roommates, who are unwilling to live with them during the 14-day period.

Most of them work in manufacturing or services and none are from Hubei province, Mr Tan added. Meanwhile, some who have already returned are putting up with friends, who are also foreign workers here, while observing the 14-day leave of absence.

An employment agent who declined to be named said about a third of her clients, mainly firms in the semiconductor industry, have workers who have been turned away by landlords.

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She now knows of at least 10 workers who have been told they cannot return to their rented rooms in HDB flats. "We are working with their employers, who are paying housing agents to help them find landlords that can take them in," she said.

Several ministers, including Mrs Teo, have said they are aware of this happening, and have in recent days urged Singaporeans not to ostracise and evict those on the mandated leave of absence. This is because "by and large they are not unwell", Mrs Teo said.

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The Ministry of Health also says that people can live in the same room as someone placed on leave of absence, though they are encouraged to minimise contact.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said in Parliament on Monday that the authorities are also looking at how to help landlords, employers and households impacted by leave of absence arrangements.

Mr David Leong, managing director of human resources firm PeopleWorldwide Consulting, said that while most of the landlords of workers with travel history to China that he has placed are understandably worried, they have not taken the drastic step of evicting their tenants.

"So far, our team is managing well by keeping in touch with the landlords, and keeping records of movement and interactions," he said.

Lawyer Wilbur Lua of Covenant Chambers said that tenancy agreements do not usually give landlords a general right to evict their tenants at their discretion. A landlord can usually evict his tenant only if there is a material breach of the agreement, such as if the tenant is not paying his rent or has illegally sub-let the unit.

Lawyer Chia Boon Teck of Chia Wong Chambers said that in cases of eviction based on terms not covered in the tenancy agreement, tenants may file a claim against their landlords in the Small Claims Tribunal or sue the landlords in the State Courts for a breach of tenancy agreement. They may also go for mediation to settle such landlord-tenant disputes, he added.

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