There is no question that standards at foreign worker dormitories should be raised, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo last night, following reports of crowded conditions at one such dormitory.
But she urged Singaporeans to let her team focus on the "enormity of the task at hand" - containing the transmission of Covid-19 among some 200,000 workers spread across 43 dormitories.
"Let us cross this important hurdle during this 'circuit breaker', and then we can deal with this issue in a dedicated way. You have my word," said Mrs Teo, referring to stricter movement controls nationwide from today to prevent local spread of the virus for the next few weeks.
She noted that before such purpose-built dorms were constructed, many foreign workers lived in poor and unhygienic conditions, and a decision was taken to build the current dorms to raise standards.
Today's dorms have proper sleeping rooms with beds, dedicated toilet and shower facilities, recreational spaces with TVs and newspapers, supermarkets or minimarts, and dedicated sick bays.
They are licensed under the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act and must meet conditions including cleanliness, water supply, sanitation and hygiene of premises.
Ministry of Manpower (MOM) officers conduct regular inspections to ensure standards are adhered to, and take strong enforcement action against operators that provide poor accommodation.
"Occasionally, I get complaints that my officers were 'high-handed' during enforcement, when they are just doing their jobs in the workers' interests," said Mrs Teo.
"Each time we attempt to raise standards, employers yelp - these are added costs which they must eventually pass on. They ask MOM, 'Are people prepared to pay more?'"
Mrs Teo said such workers are involved in delivering important services like construction for Singaporeans. She hopes the situation shows employers and the public that raising standards at worker dorms "is not only the right thing to do, but also in our own interests".
"We should be willing to accept the higher costs that come with higher standards," she said.
But for now, her team's focus is on stopping the transmission of the coronavirus in dorms. Two dorms housing 20,000 workers - S11 Dormitory @ Punggol and Westlite in Toh Guan - were gazetted as isolation areas on Sunday.
Said Mrs Teo: "My team is already working round the clock. They are on the front lines dealing with sometimes very tense conditions. Please do not demoralise them with finger-pointing. They deserve better."