Wednesday 19 December 2012

Dormitory operators unite to raise standards

New group sets out benchmarks, plans accreditation scheme
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 18 Dec 2012

THE biggest foreign worker dormitory operators here have joined forces to introduce new best practices for the industry, which has been ridden by complaints about poor living conditions.

The eight companies, which together provide more than 100,000 of the estimated 150,000 bed spaces in purpose-built dorms, are the founding members of the Dormitory Association of Singapore, formed in September.

Members will have to meet guidelines, such as providing clean and adequate toilets which ensure privacy, rooms that are regularly cleaned and aired, and separate beds for each worker.

These are on top of the basic legal requirements of land use, structural integrity, fire safety, and hygiene and sanitation that accommodation for foreign workers must already now satisfy.

The association wants to rope in the Manpower Ministry, the National Environment Agency and other government agencies to draw up an accreditation scheme based on the set of benchmarks by June next year.

It also aims to get more dorm operators, including hundreds of smaller players that run factory- converted dorms, to join as members.

There are about 20 companies in Singapore running 39 purpose-built dorms,and many more that run several hundred factory-converted dorms. They do not need to obtain a licence from the Government to operate.

The hygiene standards of dorms were thrust into the spotlight after Chinese bus drivers from SMRT went on strike three weeks ago. Besides being unhappy about their pay, they also complained about their poor living conditions, such as having to deal with bed bugs.

Mooted by non-governmental help group Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) chairman Yeo Guat Kwang six months ago, the association was formed as founding members felt that some smaller operators were not playing by the book.

Mr Kelvin Teo, the association's president who manages three dormitories, said:"We have seen some of the photos showing bad practices by some smaller players in the media.

"It affects our industry's image and we want to put a stop to it."

The eight signed a document yesterday promising to follow these new best practices.

There are plans to form an independent committee made up of staff from MWC and government agencies who will check the premises of member dorm operators to ensure that they have followed the guidelines.Mr Teo said he hopes that by raising overall standards in the industry, the Government will be more willing to put up more land to build dorms.

The 39 purpose-built dorms in Singapore are full.

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Manpower and Education Hawazi Daipi, who was at yesterday's signing ceremony, said government agencies will be interested to work with the association to help improve the living conditions of foreign workers.

Mr Simon Lee, the association's secretary-general who runs four dorms, said the association and MWC will also organise visits to dorms run by smaller operators to give them recommendations on ways to improve, and convince them to join the association.

Mr Lee said: "As an association, we can conduct classes and training and work with our members closely."

Some benchmarks for worker dormitories

Rooms and bed arrangements

- Rooms and dormitories must be kept in good condition

- A separate bed for each worker must be provided

- When double-deck beds are used, there must be at least 0.7m of space between the lower and upper bunks

- Triple-bunk beds are not allowed

Bathrooms and other sanitary facilities

- One shower to be shared by a maximum of 15 people

- Toilet cubicles should be well lit and have good ventilation

- Bathroom floors must be made of anti-slip and washable materials

- Facilities must be designed with adequate privacy that will prevent scrutiny from security and closed-circuit television cameras

Canteen and cooking facilities

- All kitchen floors, ceiling and wall surfaces adjacent to or above cooking areas should be built using durable, non-toxic and non-absorbent materials

- Must be furnished with tables and benches


Shortage of dorms, rising rents raise concerns
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 18 Dec 2012

IF RENT prices in dormitories continue to rise, employers may be forced to house more foreign workers in Housing Board flats.

That is the worry of MP Yeo Guat Kwang, who is also chairman of migrant help group Migrant Workers' Centre.

Monthly rent at purpose-built dormitories has gone up significantly in recent years because of a shortage of bed spaces, he said.

All the 39 purpose-built dorms are full.

In 2005, workers each paid about $95 a month to rent a bed space in these dorms. But the price has gone up to between $280 and $300 now.

In contrast, rent prices at HDB flats are relatively cheaper: It costs a worker about $200 every month to live in a flat.

"My concern is that if we do not have enough accommodation for these workers, they may actually move on to thinking of HDB rental as an alternative... This may cause inconvenience to some residents," said Mr Yeo.

He was speaking to reporters yesterday at the launch of the Dormitory Association of Singapore Limited (DASL), which has been set up to raise standards in the dorm industry.

There are 723,000 foreign workers in Singapore.

An estimated 150,000 live in purpose-built dorms and another 100,000 in rented HDB flats. Some 50,000 live in factory-converted dorms while the rest live in construction site quarters, temporary housing such as shipping containers, and residential premises such as shophouses and landed homes.

DASL president Kelvin Teo said one of the reasons there is a shortage of dorms is that the Government has released fewer plots of land in recent years.

"The preference is to locate the dorms in more remote places, but even these places are used to build HDB flats now," said Mr Teo.

In recent years, HDB residents have increasingly grumbled about foreign workers living in their midst. As a result, more dorms have been built in remote areas like Mandai and Tuas.

Here's how to get the best out of workers

The president of the Singapore Contractors Association (SCAL), Dr Ho Nyok Yong, talks to Goh Chin Lian of its efforts to set standards for housing foreign workers. Scal represents the construction industry and has more than 2,000 members. It also oversees six purpose-built dormitories. These dormitories house more than 16,000 foreign workers, or over 10 per cent of the 150,000 construction workers in Singapore.
The Straits Times, 22 Dec 2012

What is SCAL's experience in running foreign worker dormitories?

As a voice for our contractors, we are responsible for educating and setting a benchmark for our members.

We set up the first purpose-built dormitory in Soon Lee Road in Jurong West in 2001. We tried to have all the basic facilities. Then Sars came in 2003. We provided security in the dormitory for the first time. We also decided to have a place to quarantine workers returning from visiting their home country.

In 2009, we set up a recreation centre in Jurong West, after complaints that workers were loitering in the void deck. Now, 5,000 to 6,000 people come to the centre every day.

At the centre, we have a supermarket, a football field, a cricket field, a barber, a sundry shop and a money changer. We have a hawker centre which is also open to JTC staff nearby, to keep the business viable.

We also have a beer garden at the centre. If workers get drunk, there's a fence for security and the workers' quarters are just next door.

We organise a lot of activities, such as cricket games, street soccer, educational roadshows and cultural shows. We set the benchmark.

How have foreign workers' living conditions changed over these years?

Rooms used to be dark, crammed without sufficient ventilation, often with triple-deck beds.

Many people would bring their own utensils and cook together in an untidy and crowded kitchen. And in general, toilets were crammed.

Now, it's one room to 12 people, arranged orderly with enough space for each person. They also have lockers for their things.

There is a ratio of one toilet cubicle for up to 15 workers. There is fire-fighting equipment, and drills are held for people to know where to go in an emergency. We have 24-hour security, with checks on everyone going in and out, to make sure no outsider is allowed in.

We have a proper cooking place that is very clean with a lot of cooking stations, as well as regulations on how to cook, when to cook. We provide laundry services, for unlimited number of shirts and trousers. In the evening, they can collect their clothing. We have gyms, multi-purpose halls for movies, and games rooms. Outside, mini-marts sell fresh food.

These things are important because if a worker doesn't have proper accommodation, he will go to the construction site half asleep. But when he sleeps well and during the weekend, he has recreation and chit-chats with his friends, he won't miss home. He will be recharged in the morning and work better.

It's been more than 10 years since you set the standard, but employers are still being fined for not housing their workers properly. Why?

Cost could be an issue. Maybe they have a small job and few workers.

A few years ago, it cost $90-plus a month to put up a worker in a dorm. Now, some dorms charge about $280. Costs of running a dormitory are high. It's not easy to employ cleaners. There are more facilities and more maintenance work. But we try to price our dorms cheaper than the market: We charge on average $250.

Location is another issue. There are about 40 purpose-built dorms, but sometimes you have a project in the east, but the available dormitory is in the west. Staying on site saves on transport and workers can wake up later.

Some companies that run dormitories for their own workers know a happy worker is a productive worker, so they provide clean and comfortable living conditions such as bedrooms with enough space, sufficient toilets and a kitchen, though they cannot compare to the bigger purpose-built dorms.

Of course, there's the other side of the coin. These people just want to save on costs. We hope they will level up.

What challenges do you face in running dormitories?

Manpower is tight. It's quite difficult to employ staff to look after the dormitories because these are in remote areas. Even our subcontractors have difficulty getting enough cleaners.

Getting the land is a challenge. You have to find a remote place because residents don't like a dorm in their neighbourhood. But Singapore is densely populated. It's a balancing act. We need workers to build Singapore. But we have this worry when foreign workers are our neighbours.

High-rise dorms will be more noticeable but I think we can build a bit higher to accommodate more people.

Could you share your experience with foreign workers?

I've been in the construction industry for more than 20 years. I was a junior engineer leading 10, 20 workers. When the ice cream man came, I was the first one to pay for them. I told everybody, "Come, take one".

The worker appreciates you when he knows you look after him. There is no need to speak his language. The bond is there.

Before, good accommodation was a luxury. Now, it's the norm. But indirectly, you benefit.

I say to my staff: If there's no love, there's a war. If the worker feels you respect him, he will respect you. You can get things done faster and he does more than he should. It's a win-win situation.

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