How Covid-19 has changed life in foreign workers' dorms in S'pore

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In April 2020, Singapore raced to quell the spike in Covid-19 cases, especially at foreign worker dormitories. Today, while still unable to travel into the community, workers say their living situation has improved.

When the Covid-19 outbreak hit dormitories in Singapore last year, conditions in the living quarters were pinpointed as a reason for the spike in cases.

A year after dorm cases hit a daily high, Insight looks at how dormitory living has been transformed even as the fight against Covid-19 continues to be felt daily by the workers living in the quarters, with the timeline for workers to return to the community unclear given the latest spate of cases.

How life has changed for migrant workers since Covid-19 cases peaked in 2020

Covid-19 cases in migrant worker dormitories had been close to zero for months and plans were in place for rules to be relaxed, but a recent flare-up at Westlite Woodlands has thrown a spanner in the works.

Speaking at a press conference on Thursday (April 22), Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng said there were plans for some easing of restrictions for migrant workers and dormitories.

"But given the fact that today we have got new variants of concern, and I think you can see that we have also got this new number of cases that have come up, we've decided to put it on hold for a while," he said.

"We hope that you can help us to garner support and also patience from the migrant workers, from the employers towards our measures, and we will do everything possible in a very careful, measured and calibrated way once the numbers are down again."


More space in rooms, but migrant workers yearn to go out to relax

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When officers from the Ministry of Manpower visited dormitories for inspections, it tended to be an officious affair. With the pandemic, what was a fairly detached relationship between dorm operators, workers and MOM has become more collaborative.

Before the pandemic hit migrant worker dormitories hard last year, Indian construction foreman Mathiyalagan Kathikeyan used to share a room with 11 other people.

Now, there are only eight others in his room.

He misses going out on Sundays to meet his friends, and visiting East Coast Park and Little India. Now, he has to apply for an exit pass to visit a recreation centre, which he does once every few weeks.


Singapore workers adapt to safety steps but labour crunch an issue

Like clockwork, marine worker Miah Md Liton, 34, checks in using SafeEntry and takes his temperature when he arrives at his workplace in Shipyard Road at 7am.

At a daily briefing before he starts his work, which involves fixing and welding pipes for ships, the Bangladeshi is reminded to keep a safe distance of at least 1m from his co-workers.

His safety helmet is marked with red tape, another reminder that he and his colleagues from a different-coloured zone cannot mingle or have lunch together.


New infections mean freer rest days are some way off

It was a rainy night last Saturday (April 17), and Terusan Recreation Centre in Pioneer was buzzing with activity.

Migrant workers were spotted making a beeline for a row of shops at the centre, leaving with bulging bags of fresh produce or sporting new haircuts.

In the beer garden, many relaxed over cans of Kingfisher and Kalyani Black Label, popular brands of Indian beer. Others drifted towards the football pitch, where a four-on-four game - the largest currently allowed under Singapore's safe distancing measures - was under way.


Purpose-built dorms now 60% filled, down from 88% a year ago

The average occupancy in purpose-built dormitories (PBDs) for migrant workers is around 60 per cent of their maximum limit today, down from 88 per cent a year ago, the authorities said on Friday.

This is because some workers have moved into new quick-build dorms (QBDs) and construction temporary quarters (CTQs), while others have returned home, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and Ministry of National Development (MND) told The Straits Times.

Since April last year, when Covid-19 cases in dorms hit a peak of more than 1,000 a day, additional sites and bed spaces have been added to house about 60,000 migrant workers so as to reduce the density of existing dorms.


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