Migrant worker onboarding centres will help S'pore prepare for 'Disease X'

Fully recovered migrant workers leaving the migrant worker onboarding centre in Punggol on March 26, 2021.
Fully recovered migrant workers leaving the migrant worker onboarding centre in Punggol on March 26, 2021.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Recovered workers waiting in one of the bunks at the migrant worker onboarding centre in Punggol on March 26, 2021.
Recovered workers waiting in one of the bunks at the migrant worker onboarding centre in Punggol on March 26, 2021.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng (centre) greeting migrant workers at the migrant worker onboarding centre in Punggol on March 26, 2021.
Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng (centre) greeting migrant workers at the migrant worker onboarding centre in Punggol on March 26, 2021.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - A pilot scheme to centralise the onboarding process for migrant workers will likely become a permanent fixture here, said Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng on Friday (March 26). This is because it helps Singapore better prepare for a future "Disease X" while lowering costs for employers.

Since March 15, all work permit and S Pass holders in the construction, marine and process (CMP) sectors arriving from higher-risk countries, such as Bangladesh and Malaysia, have to serve the bulk of their quarantine in migrant worker onboarding centres (MWOCs) in Punggol, Tengah or Eunos.

The four new centres have received about 1,000 workers in all to date. Another centre will be set up in Choa Chua Kang and the five centres will provide up to 7,000 bed spaces.

Previously, arriving foreign workers in the CMP sectors served a 14-day stay-home notice (SHN) in dedicated facilities such as hotels and another seven days in separate isolation facility. Their employers would then need to arrange for medical screenings and settling-in programmes individually once the worker was out of quarantine.

The MWOCs allow workers to complete 10 days of their SHN and the additional seven-day isolation in the same place, while getting a more detailed medical examination that can identify pre-existing chronic illnesses or mental health conditions early.

Workers will also go through a more comprehensive orientation programme, which includes specially developed e-learning modules in their native languages, covering topics such as infection control and worker's rights.

They are not allowed to intermingle outside their cohorts.

At the centre in Punggol, workers can also use biometrics to apply for their work passes while serving quarantine. This centre is also the only one that will house workers who are found to have recovered from the coronavirus. These workers will be required to stay in the MWOC only for the medical exam and settling-in programme.

Dr Tan said the goal is to have permanent onboarding centres and move parts of the process, such as basic health screening, to the workers' home countries.

"We hope that there will be one to two centralised facilities to cater to those that fly in, and those that come by land," he added. "Should 'Disease X' come - and it's not a question of 'if', it's a question of 'when' - a centre like this will enable us to react a lot faster and intervene at a significantly higher level."

Employers pay up to $2,400 for each worker who stays at an MWOC, about $300 less compared with previous quarantine arrangements.


Newly arrived work permit and S Pass holders waiting to enter the migrant worker onboarding centre in Punggol on March 26, 2021. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Mr Chan Eng Yew, chief executive of shipbuilding firm Strategic Marine, has two employees currently in MWOCs.

"This facility allows us to free up resources that would otherwise have been deployed to coordinate the movement of the workers between the different facilities," Mr Chan, 48, said. A production manager, a foreman and an employee in human resources had to be taken off their regular jobs to handle this in the past, he said.

The MWOCs could also help to ease manpower crunches in sectors such as construction.

Said Singapore Contractors Association president Ng Yek Meng: "We can bring in workers in a safer manner and minimise the risk of Covid-19 spreading to the community, so that more workers can enter Singapore faster."