Coronavirus: Government to absorb additional operational costs for dormitory operators during circuit breaker

Restricted movement measures have resulted in additional costs. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE - The Government will be footing the bill for the increased operating costs incurred by dorm operators due to the dormitory lockdowns and stay-home notices imposed on some 300,000 foreign workers across Singapore.

Restricted movement measures that confine this group to their places of residence have resulted in additional costs, with dorm operators reporting a spike in utility bills and difficulties in finding manpower to support the sanitation and safe distancing measures required.

Responding to queries from The Straits Times, the Manpower Ministry (MOM) said on Monday (May 11) that the Government will offset the increase in operating costs for operators of purpose-built dorms, factory-converted dorms and construction temporary quarters owing to the longer hours workers now spend in their residences.

These include additional costs for manpower, cleaning, maintenance, utilities and infrastructure incurred because of the restrictions imposed on the workers as part of the efforts to stem the spread of Covid-19 in the dormitories.

However, the support is only temporary and "in view of the ongoing Covid-19 infections in the dormitories" said the ministry.

Said the MOM: "When the support is eventually withdrawn, it will be necessary for dormitory operators to recoup many of these additional costs from their tenants."

According to a notice sent out to dorm operators last week, the support will last until the end of the circuit breaker which is scheduled to be lifted on June 1.

To get the subsidies, dorm operators will have to provide receipts for their "business-as-usual" expenses as well as for the months that saw increased operating costs.

To qualify, dorm operators will also have to declare that they did not raise rental fees throughout the circuit breaker period.

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The subsidies come as a relief for dormitory operators as many have had to scale up cleaning, security and administrative operations and take on new tasks, like food dispatching, often on short notice.

Operators that ST spoke to in the last few days said they experienced rising operational costs but would not be increasing rental fees.

Mr Stephen Ong of Draco Venture, which operates North Coast Lodge, was initially worried about the increasing overheads.

In the last two months, the purpose-built dorm near Woodlands that houses 7,000 residents has seen its utility bills double. Garbage disposal expenses have also increased seven times, noted Mr Ong.

The pandemic forced a steep learning curve on dorm operators, said Mr Kong Chee Min, chief officer of Centurion Corporation, which manages the Westlite dorms.

It has not been easy to employ additional manpower on dorms at such short notice, especially because they are considered high-risk locations. Centurion has instead employed some of its residents to help out, said Mr Kong.

The risk of Covid-19 infection has also caused some of Labourtel Management Corporation's employees at its four purpose-built dorms to resign, said its director Shaik Mohamed.

"We have staff who face increased pressure from their families to not report to work given the risks and we have also had a fair amount of resignations," he said.

These fears were not unwarranted. Already three of North Coast Lodge's staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus and one of them is over 60, said Mr Ong.

"Our team members can never be compensated for the life-threatening infection risk they are taking every day," he added.

Foreign workers living in dorms account for the vast majority of Covid-19 cases in Singapore. There were 486 new cases in Singapore on Monday, taking the total count to 23,822.

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