Coronavirus: Employers foot bill to house workers on mandatory leave of absence

The Manpower, Education and National Development ministries said they received feedback from firms, employers and institutes of higher learning of workers and students were being evicted.
The Manpower, Education and National Development ministries said they received feedback from firms, employers and institutes of higher learning of workers and students were being evicted.PHOTO: ST FILE

Six months' rent. That is the bill for Ms Laureen Goi's company to house her workers for just 14 days - the mandated leave of absence (LOA) period because of the coronavirus outbreak - after their landlords turned them away.

She is one of several employers here who now have to foot the bill for alternative accommodation so that their workers returning from mainland China are not stranded.

And they fear the situation will get worse, with the first cases of the coronavirus' local transmission announced yesterday, even though the Government has said it will take errant landlords to task.

Ms Goi, 48, general manager at Tee Yih Jia Food Manufacturing, said that six months was the minimum period the dormitory offered to her, which she accepted after being rejected by hotels.

"The support needs to be there. They are asking us to quarantine workers, but where? I hope the Government can provide a place to house the workers that are returning," she told The Straits Times.

Similarly, Trilogy Technologies' Ms Soong, 26, who wanted to be known only by one name, said the blame cannot be "100 per cent" on the landlords.

The human resource and purchasing executive for the firm, which is involved in electronics engineering servicing, said that two of her workers returning from China were not allowed back into their Housing Board (HDB) flats by landlords.

She wrote to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) but was told they could not do anything and to contact HDB directly.

The two workers now have to stay in a hotel and this costs about $100 a night each for the two-week LOA period. Even securing a hotel room was problematic, with one hotel refusing to take any returning China nationals and another ignoring Ms Soong's request.

She said: "If a hotel did not take them, we would not know what to do. The Government should provide an alternative for workers that are not ill and just need to do the LOA."

On Monday night, MOM, the Ministry of National Development and the Ministry of Education said landlords who evict tenants on home quarantine, LOA, or based on their nationality could face restrictions and even be barred from renting to foreign work pass holders in future.

 
 
 

In a joint reply to queries from The Straits Times last night, the ministries said MOM may also bar addresses of errant landlords from being used for work pass applications in future.

"We understand that the affected individuals, who were residing in both public and private housing, have been able to find alternative accommodation including with the help of their employers, IHL and government agencies," they said, adding that those who could not find alternative accommodation could call 1800-333-9999 for help.

Legal experts who spoke to The Straits Times said the renting restrictions were likely meant to apply to public housing, as landlords had to obtain the consent of HDB before subletting to foreign work pass holders.

Lawyer Terence Seah said he did not think the restrictions could apply to private property.

Similarly, Mr Chia Boon Teck of Chia Wong Chambers said that HDB has an "overriding control" over the landlord as a lessee, whatever the agreement with a sub-tenant.

"HDB requires their lessees to register their occupiers through their portals, which would facilitate HDB's identification of any errant lessees," he said, adding that the agency's powers against the lessee would be provided for under the HDB Act and HDB regulations.

Private properties, on the other hand, are generally governed by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), which does not have rules that are as extensive, he said.

Mr Wilbur Lua, associate director of Covenant Chambers LLC, said that to his knowledge, there was no requirement for private property owners to register tenants or obtain the consent of URA before letting.

"So, I think it would be more challenging for the Government to impose such restrictions for private property owners."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 05, 2020, with the headline 'Employers foot bill to house workers on mandatory leave of absence'. Print Edition | Subscribe