SINGAPORE - There were delays in sending workers from the Westlite Jalan Tukang Dormitory to the appropriate care facilities due to inadequate resourcing, the chief of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) division set up to care for migrant workers has said.
The unexpected spike in Covid-19 cases in the Jurong dormitory in recent days that led to the delay was due to "a mandatory routine mass testing exercise by an employer on their workforce residing at the dormitory", said MOM Assurance, Care and Engagement group chief Tung Yui Fai on Friday (Oct 15).
However, migrant worker advocacy groups here said the issues being faced at the Westlite Tukang dorm are not unique, with other dorm operators struggling with changing regulations and communication gaps.
The majority of the workers staying at Jalan Tukang are not vaccinated, Mr Tung noted during a visit to the dormitory.
An estimated 500 of the 2,000 workers living at the 3,420-bed dorm have reportedly tested positive for the virus. About 1,400 of the workers are from Sembcorp Marine.
MOM did not say why Jalan Tukang has such a sizeable unvaccinated population, when more than 90 per cent of all dormitory residents in Singapore have been fully vaccinated since early August.
Mr Tung's visit came two days after the situation culminated in a confrontation between workers and management on Wednesday (Oct 13) about delays in isolation of Covid-19 cases and poor quality food that saw the riot police called in.
There were raised voices but no violence, and armoured officers left the scene that same afternoon.
Mr Tung said that the issues raised by the dorm's residents are being progressively resolved together with the dorm operator and employer.
The backlog of workers who tested positive in their antigen rapid tests has been cleared as they have all been sent to care or recovery facilities, while mobile clinical teams have been deployed to beef up resourcing at the dorm, he said.
"In the last two days since we have intervened, the conveyance has been observed to be smooth and no significant delays have been observed. We are very confident that the workers who are infected will be sent to recovery facilities."
More will be done to address migrant workers' concerns promptly, including about Singapore's shift from zero-Covid-19 to living with the virus, he added.
"I understand that the migrant workers in Westlite Tukang are anxious. Many of them have arrived in Singapore not too many months ago and are worried about infection as Singapore is transiting to 'living with Covid-19'," said Mr Tung.
"Hence, it is important to explain to them how we are doing this. (The) majority have not been vaccinated."
MOM is working with the workers' employer to encourage them to be vaccinated either with the vaccines under Singapore's national vaccination programme, or, if they wish, with a vaccine that they accept, Mr Tung added.
Mr Tung was accompanied during his visit on Friday by representatives from Sembcorp Marine and Centurion Group, which manages the dormitory.
Separately, representatives from NTUC's Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) and Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering Employees' Union also visited the dorm on Friday.
MWC executive director Bernard Menon said the non-profit has not observed a rise in complaints across the dorms, but from speaking with migrant workers, it noted some confusion and anxiety over recent changes to pandemic management measures aligned with the country's shift to living with Covid-19.
"The MWC is working with MOM to avail our communication channels to provide migrant workers, including our grassroot ambassadors' network who are migrant workers themselves, with clarifications on the news measures in dormitories," he said.
He added that the MWC is working with the union and the workers' employers to resolve employment related issues in the coming days.
Non-governmental organisations that work closely with migrant workers, however, said the issues raised at the Westlite Tukang dorm were not isolated.
Mr Michael Cheah, executive director of HealthServe, said dorm operators have been struggling to keep up with changing regulations, even though many have been trying hard and reaching out for help.
"Dorm operators large and small reach out to us to ask for help on how to maintain the mental, physical and emotional well-being of workers," he added.
"They often ask when they can move the worker to a different, safer site to be cared for, and they always say the same thing: that they are not medically trained."
A spokesman for the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics said the group has heard from and received similar complaints from workers at other dorms, including those at purpose-built dormitories and factory-converted dormitories.
Mr Alex Au, vice-president of Transient Workers Count Too, said a lack of clarity over who is responsible for what protocols in the dorms has resulted in a frustrating situation.
"MOM is all at sea between a Covid-19-elimination strategy and a live-with-Covid-19 strategy, utterly confused," he said.
"They're trying to micro-manage situations but expecting dorm operators and employers to do the work for them. Everybody, employers included, is frustrated and annoyed with the costs involved."
But Mr Cheah said the biggest disconnect appears to be between the workers and those who are supposed to be caring for them.
Some workers have complained about long waits both to access telemedicine services and to receive actual medication.
"The workers feel that they aren't really cared for or heard," he said.
"It's not that we don't care for them. But information reaching them has been very slow, resulting in instances such as their roommates testing positive but not being isolated immediately. It's been a very confusing time for everyone."
Mr Tung said on Friday that the authorities will "tighten up" their processes to ensure workers who get Covid-19 are sent to care or recovery facilities in a timely manner.
"As our processes are new, we will do our best to recover from any lapse," he added.
"We also appeal to the employers and workers to help us make sure that these processes are done properly and well."