Similar Covid-19 curbs not possible as migrant workers live in dorms and NSFs can return to own home: Koh Poh Koon

It has been two years since most of the 300,000 migrant workers living in dorms have been able to leave their place of residence for leisure in the community. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - While migrant workers and full-time national servicemen live, work, shower and eat in similar communal settings, Covid-19 restrictions imposed on dormitory residents cannot be similar to those imposed on soldiers.

This is because NSFs are able to return to their own separate homes to be quarantined when necessary, unlike dormitory-dwelling migrant workers whose place of residence is a communal setting, said Senior Minister of State for Manpower Koh Poh Koon on Tuesday (Feb 15).

"(This) makes a potential reignition of cases in the dormitories a health risk for many workers," he said.

Dr Koh was responding to a proposal by Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) to apply the same Covid-19 measures set for NSFs to migrant workers so that they can be part of the community just like the soldiers.

It was one of the suggestions put forth by Mr Ng in his adjournment motion, the last item of a seven-hour Parliament sitting, on creating a more fair and inclusive Singapore for low-wage migrant workers.

Mr Ng said while there are programmes that allow dorm residents into the community, only about 2 per cent of dorm residents are free to do so on any given day, which is "not nearly enough".

"Would all of us sitting here accept letting only 2 per cent of our NSFs into the community?" he said.

"This drip-drip offering of tiny community visits does not help the vast majority of workers. A broad-based relaxation of movement controls is needed, and small-scale community visits are not an adequate substitute," he added.

Mr Ng noted that it has been two years since most of the 300,000 migrant workers living in dorms have been able to leave their place of residence for leisure in the community.

For most of that period, they could only leave for work or visit recreation centres, which have facilities for migrant workers to buy necessities, get a haircut and remit money home.

The "continued confinement" will take a toll on workers' mental health, he said.

Another major issue plaguing migrant workers are forced kickbacks where employers illegally extract payments from workers so that they would be considered for employment, he added.

Dr Koh, responding to Mr Ng's proposal to sharply increase penalties against those caught collecting kickbacks, noted that the courts have imposed substantial fines of $7,000 to $12,000 per charge or short imprisonment terms but have not approached the maximum fine of $30,000 or imprisonment of up to two years.

"The courts have enough leeway to mete out tougher sentences if they want to but at the same time, it has not been exercised to the maximum. So I think we should allow the courts to make the judicial assessment of what the maximum fine should be," he said.

To ensure workers get more rest, Mr Ng proposed to mandate one rest day for all migrant workers and that they should not be allowed to sell these rest days back to their employers, similar to the mandatory rest day a month for foreign domestic workers.

Dr Koh said migrant workers are covered under the Ministry of Manpower's (MOM) Employment Act, which stipulates the maximum hours an employee can work per week and per day, including overtime hours.

Employers are also required to grant all employees, including migrant workers, at least one rest day without pay per week, unless there is a prior written agreement. The employee must also be compensated for working on the rest day.

"As a safeguard, employers cannot compel their employees to work on their rest days, unless under exceptional circumstances," he said, noting that workers who are forced to do so should approach MOM for assistance.

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