Coronavirus: Looking out for workers in over 1,100 smaller facilities a looming challenge

Their priority is to address the basic needs of these migrant workers. PHOTO: MIGRANT WORKERS' CENTRE/FACEBOOK

With an inter-agency task force moving quickly to address the needs of migrant workers in big dormitories, a looming challenge is to look out for migrant workers in smaller housing facilities scattered all over the island.

There are more than 1,100 housing facilities, such as factory-converted dormitories, catering to workers. A coalition of non-governmental organisations and ground-up initiatives has taken on the task of assisting workers in these facilities, Mr Bernard Menon, executive director of the Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC), told The Straits Times.

Their priority is to address the basic needs of the workers, catering food and providing sanitary products, such as soap, shaving kits, laundry detergent and masks.

"Without being able to clean, shower... it would be very difficult for migrant workers to start to look at other things like safe distancing, watching their health," said Mr Menon, who was speaking to ST's assistant video editor Olivia Quay and multimedia correspondent Hairianto Diman yesterday for ST's The Big Story.

His comments came as the foreign worker community here has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 2,600 workers in large dormitories infected. There are about 200,000 migrant workers in these purpose-built dormitories.

But a growing worry is the increasing numbers of infected foreign workers staying in other places like factory-converted dormitories or even shophouses. There were 30 new cases, reported on Thursday, of infected workers who did not live in dormitories.

Smaller dormitories can house anything from 10 workers to more than 900, and are located all over the island, Mr Menon added, noting that these logistical challenges compound the situation.

The 43 purpose-built dormitories each house between 3,000 and 25,000 residents.

The hope is that by helping dorm operators fill and address such issues upfront, they would be better able to then help workers by implementing safe distancing, said Mr Menon, adding that organisations also provide emotional and psychological counselling for workers.

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MWC has continuously engaged its group of migrant worker ambassadors, who help disseminate information to their compatriots on safe distancing and personal hygiene, he said. They have helped the multi-agency task force handle issues on the ground like food, essentials and mobile connectivity problems.

"As we understand it, these issues have gradually stabilised in the last two weeks," he said, based on feedback from ambassadors on the ground.

Mr Menon also noted that housing standards for migrant workers have evolved and improved over the years, to take into account issues like the need for more space for each worker, more recreational facilities and having facilities that are sanitary.

"Covid-19 is really very unpre-cedented in the way it spreads very, very easily, very, very quickly," he said. The way dormitories were shaped did not factor in the need to reduce disease transmission, he added.

However, this does not mean the dormitories did not have their fair share of pandemic response measures, he said.

"Like in the case of Sars, when we come out of this... I'm sure there will be lessons, more changes and improvements made," he said.

"Most importantly, we need to focus on what's most urgent now: taking care of migrant workers in the dormitories, regardless of what dormitory type they live in, and helping them as much as we can."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2020, with the headline Coronavirus: Looking out for workers in over 1,100 smaller facilities a looming challenge. Subscribe