SINGAPORE - Shortcomings on the part of all parties involved in the well-being of foreign workers under their charge - including employer Sembcorp Marine, dormitory operator Westlite and the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) - led to emotions boiling over at a dormitory in Jalan Tukang last month in an incident that drew riot police to the scene.
Calm has since been restored to the dorm and its 3,000 residents, Senior Minister of State for Manpower Koh Poh Koon told Parliament on Monday (Nov 1), and MOM's Assurance, Care and Engagement (Ace) Group, which looks after migrant worker dorms here, has tightened up coordination and communication with dorm operators and employers when handling mass testing exercises and surges in Covid-19 cases.
Dr Koh said the authorities have conducted a thorough review and tightened up testing and isolation processes in dorms.
Meanwhile, investigations into failures to fulfil regulatory obligations, for example, in the safety and hygiene of the food catered, are ongoing, Dr Koh added.
The Singapore Food Agency said last month it is investigating catering firm Catering Solutions over the meals it had provided to Sembcorp Marine workers living in the Jalan Tukang dorm.
Dr Koh was addressing questions filed by eight MPs on the incident at the dorm and the conditions that led to the unrest.
On Oct 13, workers at the dorm, mainly those employed by Sembcorp Marine, had confronted dorm management about delays in the transfer of Covid-19 cases and poor food quality.
The police were called in and videos and reports showed workers shouting as riot police formed up just outside the dorm entrance.
Although there were raised voices, there was no violence, The Straits Times previously reported.
Providing an account of what led to the unrest, Dr Koh said dorm operator Westlite was still adjusting to new isolation protocols that were put in place on Oct 2.
Under the new protocols, vaccinated workers who test positive for Covid-19 and are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms can recover in dedicated blocks or rooms set aside within their dorms if available, or at three centralised recovery facilities.
Unvaccinated workers still need to be taken to isolation facilities outside the dorms.
Three days before the incident, 174 positive cases were detected in the Westlite Jalan Tukang dorm, Dr Koh said. Westlite had difficulty processing this sudden surge of workers who needed to be taken to external isolation facilities.
This was the first shortcoming.
At the time, the majority of the 1,400 Sembcorp Marine workers living in the dorm were unvaccinated or were considered unvaccinated as their vaccination statuses had not yet been verified.
A majority of them had newly arrived from China in the last three to four months, noted Dr Koh.
The next day, key staff at the dorm tested positive for the coronavirus and did not come in to work, so Ace officers had to step in.
On Oct 12, Sembcorp Marine and Ace carried out a mass testing exercise in the dorm in response to the sharp rise in infections and picked up another 278 cases that needed to be taken to external facilities.
While Ace had tried to help Westlite clear the high volume of cases, it did not put in sufficient resources to do so before the second wave of cases were detected.
"While the Ace officers tried to assist the operator between Oct 11 and 12, it too did not put in sufficient resources during this time to triage, process and convey the Covid-19-positive workers before the second surge on Oct 13," said Dr Koh.
Centurion, the parent company of Westlite, said it set aside 76 beds in the Jalan Tukang dorm for vaccinated workers to recover in.
After the confrontation at the dorm on Oct 13, Ace doubled the number of officers deployed to the dorm and by that evening, 70 per cent of the workers who needed to be taken to external facilities had completed the process.
The backlog was cleared a day later.
This, coupled with engagement efforts by Ace, Sembcorp Marine and Westlite, helped to calm the workers down, Dr Koh added.
The authorities had previously attributed some of the unrest to misunderstandings among the unhappy workers about Singapore's approach to managing Covid-19 as most of them had recently arrived and were new to the shift to endemicity.
To address this, Dr Koh said Ace has created more videos and infographics over the past two weeks to explain Singapore's strategy in the workers' native languages.
He also thanked the Chinese business community, the Chinese Embassy and non-governmental organisations such as HealthServe and the Migrant Workers' Centre for the support given in the wake of the Oct 13 incident.
In response to questions from Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh and Mr Desmond Choo (Tampines GRC) on the timeliness of the aid given to the Jalan Tukang workers, Dr Koh said external parties such as the Chinese Embassy and NGOs could step in only after the unrest and the backlog of Covid-19 cases were resolved.
"It would not (have been) appropriate to allow NGOs to be exposed to the risk of infection in a dorm like this. And because the work then was about medical care... it is not necessarily something that the NGOs have the capability to provide."
The third weakness - on food quality - was on Sembcorp Marine's part, Dr Koh added.
"We take this very seriously and have asked the employer to address the complaints," he said. Sembcorp Marine has reported that it has made improvements to the food and the "feedback from workers has been positive".
MOM will not hesitate to take action against employers who fail to ensure workers' access to safe food, he added.
Correction note: An earlier version of this story said it was not clear whether there were any dedicated rooms or blocks at the Westlite Jalan Tukang dormitory that were set aside for vaccinated workers to recover in. Centurion, Westlite's parent company, has since clarified that 76 beds had been set aside for this purpose.