Coronavirus: Workers describe crowded, cramped living conditions at dormitory gazetted as isolation area

Above: Migrant workers returning yesterday to the Westlite Toh Guan dormitory. Some 6,800 of them have been told to stay in their rooms for 14 days. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH Left: Workers at the S11 Dormitory @ Punggol yesterday. It has 63 virus cases. W
Workers at the S11 Dormitory @ Punggol yesterday. It has 63 virus cases. Workers there complained of unsanitary and crowded conditions. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Fear is growing at a dormitory designated as an isolation area because of an infection cluster, with workers saying they do not have masks, and are living in unsanitary and crowded conditions.

At least six workers at the S11 Dormitory @ Punggol, where there are 63 confirmed cases of Covid-19, told The Straits Times that the rooms are infested with cockroaches and toilets are overflowing. Workers have to queue for food with no social distancing measures to keep them apart.

Yesterday, looking down from the corridor outside his room, Mr Kalyanadurai saw police officers and ambulances outside the dormitory, also known as PPT Lodge 1B, in Seletar North Link.

Migrant workers asked one another: Another case of Covid-19?

"We are all very, very scared. It can happen to any one of us," said Mr Kalyanadurai, who works as a site supervisor for a sub-contractor.

The 38-year-old is among some 13,000 migrant workers staying in the dormitory, which was one of two locked down by the authorities at the weekend, following a surge in the number of confirmed cases at those locations.

The other is Westlite Toh Guan, in Toh Guan Road East, where some 6,800 migrant workers have been told to stay in their rooms for 14 days.

The measures are to protect more workers as well as the wider community from infection, said a multi-ministry task force yesterday.

The Ministry of Health said workers will be provided with daily meals as well as masks, hand sanitisers, thermometers and digital connectivity. It also reminded dorm operators to maintain high hygiene standards and implement safe distancing measures.

But workers are worried about the current state of their living quarters.

"There are many cockroaches in the kitchen and also in our rooms. The urinals in the toilets are overflowing with urine and the workers step on the urine and then walk to their rooms," said Indian national Venkate S.H., 34.

"Today, one cleaner went to the toilet and just sprayed water and left. He didn't use any Dettol and also did not dispose of the trash, which has been around for two days.

"Empty food boxes are piled up on the rubbish bins and these bins are very near our rooms."

Mr Venkate said officers from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) visited the dormitory last Saturday night and, at around 9pm, one announced that the dormitory would be fully locked down, with no one allowed to leave the premises.

"The announcement was broadcast on the speakers outside our rooms. He said MOM will provide food for us and we are to stay inside our rooms and not crowd the common area," said Mr Venkate.

Mr Kalyanadurai added: "They said if we are unwell, we need to inform the dormitory operator, who will arrange for us to see a doctor.

"On Sunday, most of us woke up at 8am and were waiting for our breakfast, which arrived at about 10am. Everybody queued together to get the food. There was no social distancing. We also did not have masks. Only a few workers had their own masks."

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In the afternoon, it was hard to stay in the room for long. There are 12 beds in each room and each floor has 24 rooms, said Mr Venkate.

"You can see cockroaches crawling in the rooms. There are also many mosquitoes. Many people just stood outside their rooms, in the corridors. There are also smoking areas at each end of the corridors, and the toilets are also there. You can smell urine when you stand outside the rooms," he added.

Breakfast was rice with chicken and curry, and two buns. Lunch - vegetables mixed with rice and two buns - was served from 3pm to 4pm. And dinner - white rice with green pea masala - arrived at 9pm.

Dinner - white rice with green peas masala was served at 9pm at S11 Dormitory @ Punggol. PHOTO: COURTESY OF S11 DORMITORY @ PUNGGOL RESIDENT

Said Mr Venkate: "This happened suddenly. We did not stock up on food. I can't go out to buy my coffee. But some people have food and they were cooking in the kitchen because dinner was still not here at 8pm.

"If everyone wants to cook, the kitchen will be very crowded. There are six gas stoves in the kitchen and there is no way anyone can stand 1m apart."

Mr Kalyanadurai said he usually goes to the market to buy food to cook for the week, but when he tried to leave the dormitory yesterday, the gates were locked.

Some workers called their employers to ask them to bring them food but were told that was not allowed.

Mr Thomas Oh, project director of Beng Khim Construction, said he was shocked to see videos and photos of overflowing urinals and cockroaches sent by his workers.

He has over 300 workers at S11 Dormitory @ Punggol. He had wanted to deliver some dry food to them but was told he could not.

Besides the lack of hygiene in the dormitory, he said he was concerned that the workers were not staying inside their rooms and were crowding around the common areas.

Workers at the S11 Dormitory @ Punggol on April 5, 2020. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Mr Oh said: "I believe the Government has no choice and a lockdown is necessary. It's also hard to ensure that the place is in the best condition, but the current state is really horrendous and I can't imagine how my workers have to live there for a month."

Two other employers declined comment.

When contacted, a managerial employee of S11 Dormitory @ Punggol, who asked not to be named, said: "We are doing our best. Everything is in the Government's hands."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2020, with the headline Coronavirus: Workers describe crowded, cramped living conditions at dormitory gazetted as isolation area. Subscribe