New dorm standards good for workers but will come with inevitable cost hike: Dorm operators

A photo of the Food Collection Centre at the Tampines Dormitory, on June 3, 2020. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - New standards for migrant worker dormitories will enhance workers' well-being, said dormitory operators here, but will come with a cost increase of at least 50 per cent to implement them in existing dorms.

Under new specifications announced by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on Monday (June 1), dorms will have no more than 10 beds per room, with only single-deck beds and 1m spacing between them. Each room now holds 12 to 16 beds.

In recent weeks, the living conditions of foreign workers in dormitories have come under scrutiny as workers account for more than 90 per cent of Covid-19 cases here.

Each resident will have 6 sq m of living space, not including shared facilities, compared with 4.5 sq m now, which includes shared facilities. Not more than five people will share a toilet, bathroom and sink, compared with 15 people currently.

As a result, costs will increase significantly on all fronts, said dorm operators, with most agreeing on at least 50 per cent.

Mr Calvin Lim, general manager of CDPL (Tuas) Dormitory, said building costs could even double, depending on factors such as the dorm's remaining lease-term and its tenancy agreements with employers.

"If all things stayed constant and we just reduced double-deck beds to single beds, the cost per bed could already be doubled. And that's excluding the other changes and the additional operational costs that are bound to increase over time," he said.

President of the Dormitory Association of Singapore Johnathan Cheah expects building costs to double, along with a 50 per cent increase in operating costs. These should be shared by employers, dorm operators and the Government, he said.

"Dorm operations might well be a 24/7 feature in future as more manpower would be needed to implement the measures, such as stepping up on housekeeping," he said.

Centurion chief executive Kong Chee Min agreed that building costs will make the bulk of the cost increase, though he did not specify by how much.

He said existing and interested new operators have to consider the cost of development and operations as well as the revenue potential in the open market, to assess the viability of the business.

He said: "There'll be a continued need for migrant worker housing and purpose-built dormitories will continue to be the best solution to address such housing needs in land-scarce Singapore."

The new specifications will be piloted at upcoming Quick Build Dormitories, short- to medium-term housing to house around 25,000 workers. These semi-permanent structures will be ready by the end of this year and will last for about two to three years.

The Straits Times understands that new and existing operators are likely to be invited to run these upcoming dorms, although the authorities have yet to detail licensing and cost arrangements.

Another 11 purpose-built dorms to house close to 60,000 workers are in the works and are expected to be ready in the next two years.

Mr Jack Ng, facilities manager of Hulett Dormitory, said he will look at upgrading his 1,200-bed factory converted dormitory at Senoko Drive after some workers can be rehoused in the Quick Build Dormitories.

He added that Hulett Dormitory, which charges $280 per worker per month, has no plans to increase its prices at the moment as it is focused on getting the dorm a cleared status from MOM so workers can resume work.

Dr Harvey Neo, programme head at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, said the new guidelines are a "significant improvement" as they distinguish between different living spaces and reduce density in the dorms.

Regardless of how the cost is distributed among the various stakeholders, Dr Neo said it should not filter down to the foreign workers as there is "no compelling reason" to do so.

Mr Lee Chew Chiat, government and public services industry leader at Deloitte South-east Asia, said while the cost hike is inevitable, it is worth considering what the alternative cost would be without these new measures in time of pandemics such as Covid-19.

He said: "The fundamental question should be why do we need these new measures? If we are doing it for the right reasons, then it's wise to implement them and then work to increase the benefit over cost."

Correction note: The story has been updated to reflect the correct capacity of the 11 purpose-built dorms being built.

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