Plans to overhaul housing for foreign workers unveiled

60k short-term bed spaces to be up by end of year as 11 purpose-built dorms are constructed

Each worker will have more space to himself. PHOTO: ST FILE

Some 60,000 short-term bed spaces will be created to house foreign workers here by the end of this year in the first step towards a major overhaul of dormitories announced yesterday.

With workers staying in these cramped quarters accounting for more than 90 per cent of the Covid-19 cases in Singapore, the dorms of the future will be designed not only to reduce the risk of similar outbreaks, but also to respond quickly to them.

Each worker will have more space to himself, greater hygiene discipline will be instilled among the workers, and better segregation practices will be put in place.

Short-term beds will be a step in that direction. They will reduce the density of foreign workers staying in existing dormitories while helping to cut the risk of Covid-19 transmission among foreign workers when they leave interim facilities like army camps, said Mr Lawrence Wong, co-chair of the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19.

About 25,000 of these beds will be what the authorities term Quick Build Dormitories, which can be assembled within a few months and last for two to three years.

Another 25,000 will be fitted in currently unused state properties, such as former schools and vacant factories, while the remainder will take the form of temporary quarters at construction sites.

The new Quick Build Dormitories will serve as a test bed for the Government to pilot improved standards for dorms before it decides on specifications for new permanent dormitories, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo.

Five workers will share a set of toilet facilities, compared with 15 under current rules. There will be a maximum of 10 beds per room, with only single-deck beds allowed and at least 1m of spacing between them. A typical dorm today has 12 to 16 workers sleeping on double-decker beds in each room.

The plan is for 11 of these new purpose-built dorms to be built in the next two years, providing more permanent lodging for these 60,000 workers, said Mr Wong, who is also National Development Minister.

More such dorms will be built in the medium term to house an additional 40,000 workers. This additional capacity will be used to house workers staying in existing dorms so that such dorms can then be upgraded to meet the higher standards, he added.

Yesterday, task force members repeatedly stressed the need for not just new dorms, but also better practices that strengthen Singapore's resilience against pandemic risks.

Different models, such as one where the Government owns the dormitory but leases it out to be run, are also being studied, said the task force.

"It is not just that we try and reduce the risk of widespread transmission, but how we can respond more effectively when there is an outbreak," said Mrs Teo.

She noted that the Government can make rules so that fewer people share a room or communal facilities, but "that is actually the easier part". "There must also be discipline in the practice of hygiene and segregation," she added.

"The dormitories will also have to be managed differently, with operators helping to instil a higher degree of discipline, for example, on inter-mixing, and ensuring tight isolation of infected workers," she said.

The Government will work with dorm operators and employers to reinforce these norms.

Singaporeans also have to play their part by rejecting the "not in my backyard" mindset, said Mr Wong, who noted that Singapore's land scarcity means it is inevitable that new dorms will have to be quite near to residential areas.

Doing so will help Singapore become a more inclusive society, an important lesson from Covid-19, he added.

"We really need to appreciate the contributions of all that our migrant workers have been doing and will continue to do in building Singapore, and welcome them as part of our community."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2020, with the headline Plans to overhaul housing for foreign workers unveiled. Subscribe