Employers get help from agencies to find shelter for workers

Lin Shilie (left), Deputy Director, Foreign Manpower Management Division, Ministry of Manpower, in a conversation with members of an operation group helping employers to find accommodation for their Malaysian workers on 19 March, 2020. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

Malaysia's announcement last Monday night that its citizens would soon be barred from leaving the country to contain the spread of the coronavirus caught everyone by surprise - not least the 300,000 Malaysians who work in Singapore.

With about half these workers commuting daily to work, and with barely a day to spare before the partial lockdown, worried employers started frantically calling the authorities for help to find lodging.

Ms Sara Pereira, director of local security firm Oneberry Technologies, contacted the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on Tuesday.

With 69 of its security officers - about a fifth of its workforce - from Malaysia, the firm had tried to source for lodging but Ms Pereira soon found hotel rooms snapped up. She said: "We initially tried dormitories as well, but realised they were not as suitable as we needed to buy things like mattresses - and even those things were sold out."

Ms Pereira was pleasantly surprised when, within hours of her call, MOM had linked her up with the Housing Board (HDB), which provided over 20 apartments for rental in the Bedok area that same day. She said: "They were quite well organised. When we went down, the flats were already stocked with the basic necessities."

Her firm was one of 2,000 the authorities helped find lodgings for workers, across sectors.

E-grocer RedMart, which has Malaysians among its delivery staff, was another. While parent company Lazada Singapore did not give details, its chief executive James Chang said it was "grateful for the swift response and great partnership with the Singapore government" in finding accommodation.

Similarly, logistics firm DHL Supply Chain contacted MOM and the Trade and Industry Ministry on Tuesday morning, and by the evening, the authorities had helped it find lodging for about 200 staff, including logistics assistants and supervisors, said a spokesman.

Unbeknown to them, an MOM-led effort including HDB, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and their parent ministries had been put together right after the announcement on Monday to deal with such a contingency.

Mr Lin Shilie, a deputy director in MOM's foreign manpower management division, oversaw the team of 25 officers, who worked overnight, and in shifts over the next two days to make sure Malaysian workers would not be left high and dry.

Like other employers, Ms Pereira paid for her workers' lodging. This cost her firm $50 a day a guard, on top of an added $100 allowance for food and another $100 for petrol, for patrol officers for the 14 days.

She said she would make use of MOM's support. Eligible employers can apply for $50 per affected worker a night, capped at 14 nights, to cover the cost of housing workers who normally live in Malaysia.

The majority of the 10,000 workers helped by the multi-agency team were found hotel rooms. Team member Jacqueline Wee, senior manager of hotel industry development at STB's policy and planning group, said she and five others from the statutory board were "recalled" shortly after the announcement and started contacting hotels to secure rooms immediately.

"We were calling them up in the middle of the night, but all of them were very cooperative and supportive, and many committed rooms right away," she said. They made calls till about 2am on Tuesday. After a few hours of sleep, they began the process again at 9am.

(From left) Kumeres Manimaran and Steven Tang both are security supervisor, at the serviced apartments in Racecourse Road, which were sourced for them by their employer local security firm Oneberry Technologies. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

Mr Lin said the effort started in early February as a small MOM team tasked with quarantine arrangements for foreign workers. "It's a very dynamic situation... We have to be flexible and be able to switch the way we do things."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 22, 2020, with the headline Employers get help from agencies to find shelter for workers. Subscribe