Friday, 22 August 2014

Foreign Worker Dorms: Move beyond dollars and cents for our guest workers

New dorms for foreign workers are coming up, but employers shun them, preferring to put workers in cheap, makeshift shelters. That is unconscionable and it is time Singaporeans showed more heart to foreign workers.
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 21 Aug 2014

NEXT week, the largest dormitory specially built for foreign workers here will open its doors in Tuas South Avenue 1.

Expected to house up to 16,800 workers, the dorm will have foodcourts, a goldsmith shop and a beer garden. There will also be a cricket field, a football field, a basketball court and a cinema.

It will be the first of nine dorms to be built in the next two years, adding close to 100,000 additional beds for foreign workers here. This is on top of the current existing 200,000 beds.

The move to provide decent, low-cost housing is a response to criticisms of the Government's foreign worker policy here, which has left foreign workers languishing in makeshift quarters.

Problems over foreign worker housing have been the public face of many of the issues over foreign workers here.

The Chinese bus drivers at SMRT who went on strike in November 2012 cited unhappiness over living conditions, including bedbugs in their beds.

And when the riots in Little India broke out, there was a lot of attention paid to the welfare of foreign workers, particularly, how and where they were housed.

Ms Debbie Fordyce, executive committee member of workers' rights group Transient Workers Count Too, said non-governmental organisations have long called for more facilities for foreign workers, and she is glad that more dorms will be opening soon.

However, she is sceptical that bosses used to putting up workers in cheap and poor housing will be drawn to the new purpose-built dorms.

Makeshift dorms

SHE may be right.

Employers are shunning the purpose-built dorms. Let's do the maths.

There are about 770,000 work permit holders in Singapore, excluding domestic maids who live with employers.

About half of the 770,000 do not need dorm quarters to live in. These include Malaysians who commute here daily, and those in the manufacturing and service sectors who are allowed to rent Housing Board flats and live in private estates.

The remaining 385,000 workers are in sectors such as construction and marine who need dorms to live in.

There are dorm beds for just 200,000 currently, with another 100,000 expected to be ready the next two years, giving a total of 300,000.

With 385,000 potential residents, one would expect these dormitories to be filled as fast as they are completed.

But the reverse has happened.

In the past six months, dorms are hollowing out.

Employers move workers out of these purpose-built dorms into construction site quarters and factories that have been converted to makeshift shelters. Checks with dormitory operators show that there are at least 5,000 empty beds currently.

One reason for the move is cost.

Firms pay around $300 every month to house a worker in a large dorm. It costs a lot less to house workers on factory-converted premises - about $200 a month.

Employers who house workers in temporary shelters at construction sites save even more: They need to pay for only utilities.

They also save on transport costs for the workers who are housed on site.

Purpose-built dorms, in contrast, are located in far-flung areas such as Tuas and Mandai.

"As we run the dorms on construction sites ourselves, cost is reduced and we can better manage the movement of our workers. We also assign staff to be responsible for the maintenance of the dorms to keep them clean," said Mr Derick Pay, director of Tiong Seng Contractors.

Dorms v makeshift shelters

WHILE some employers prefer makeshift shelters for workers, migrant worker activists say purpose-built dorms are better options for foreign workers.

All foreign worker housing must meet basic legal requirements in land use, structural integrity, fire safety, and hygiene and sanitation.

But at the several hundred makeshift dorms islandwide, standards are often not met or enforced.

Overcrowding is common, where bosses cram in more workers than the stipulated maximum.

There are too many makeshift shelters for government officials to conduct checks.

In contrast, there are only 40 purpose-built dorms now, and each is checked a few times a week by staff of government agencies. This keeps dorm operators on their toes.

Purpose-built dorms are also commercially run, which means dorm operators are motivated to secure the business of employers by keeping the place clean and offering workers good recreational facilities and even free Wi-Fi.

In contrast, makeshift dorms are operated by construction bosses for their workers.

The main goal is to keep cost low. Space constraints also make it hard to provide recreational facilities.

Since purpose-built dorms are clearly a better option for housing foreign workers, the Government can use regulation to persuade bosses to put workers up there.

Permits are needed for makeshift dorms to be set up at converted factories or at construction sites.

The Government can phase out permits for new quarters on construction sites and factory-converted dorms.

Permits for on-site quarters last for the length of the construction projects, while most factory-converted dorms operate on a three-year renewable basis.

Permits for this type of housing can be allowed to run until their expiry dates and not be renewed.

Some may consider this too extreme and akin to forcing all employers to move their workers into dorms.

A gentler approach is to continue to allow makeshift dorms to exist, but to set limits on the numbers allowed to live there.

The Manpower Ministry will also have to have stringent standards and enforce them regularly to prevent overcrowding.

Mindset shift

BUILDING dorms is easy. Even using regulations to nudge employers into filling them is doable.

The most challenging problem, however, remains people's attitude towards foreign workers. At the heart of the issue is the simple fact that many bosses simply do not look out for their foreign workers' interests.

They keep costs as low as possible to maximise profits. That's why they choose cheap, low-quality housing, say migrant worker activists.

Ms Fordyce said: "It is all about cutting cost for employers. If they can pay a worker less and house them at a cheaper place, why not?"

Sadly, foreign workers themselves are accustomed to poor conditions.

When The Straits Times visited a few dorms on construction sites last week, workers were seen using filthy toilets with broken urinals and flooded toilet bowls. They showered outdoors using water meant for washing off cleaning equipment.

One Indian worker who lives on a Housing Board development project in Punggol expressed his sense of helplessness: "I'm happy or not happy, I still have to work. What company give, I take, if not, boss send me home."

Nor is it just employers who are guilty of this. A cold and transactional approach towards low-wage foreign workers extends to segments of Singapore society as well.

Locals understand that these workers are needed for jobs they do not want to do. Yet, they blame foreign workers for overcrowding public areas such as trains and buses. Some Singaporeans have also protested when dormitories are built near their homes, citing concerns about safety and falling property prices. It is also common for online forums to be flooded with nasty comments about foreigners.

Such attitudes have to change.

Foreign workers are here to earn a decent living. If workers are paid and treated better, they will stay on in Singapore. They gain experience, become more productive and help the economy grow. Many workers also eventually return home. Some become successful. Do we want workers to remember Singapore as a place that helped them or treated them shabbily?

Building dorms to house foreign workers is a good move on the part of the Government.

But it's also time for Singaporeans - employers and consumers included - to move beyond the dollars and cents, and treat our guest workers with more heart.

Workers at Punggol site told to vacate makeshift dorm
MOM officers conduct checks after ST report on poor living conditions
By Amelia Tan And Aw Cheng Wei, The Straits Times, 21 Aug 2014

HUNDREDS of workers were told to move out of a makeshift dormitory in Punggol yesterday after checks by the authorities on the state of their living quarters.

The poor living conditions at the dorm, on one of the worksites of a housing project, were reported in The Straits Times on Tuesday.

Yesterday, when The Straits Times visited the dorm at about 7pm, workers were seen milling outside the site with luggage.

Workers said that men wearing official-looking tags had visited the dorm to check on their rooms, drains and toilets over the past few days. And yesterday at about 4pm, the men were told by the construction firm to vacate their rooms and get ready to move to other dorms in Mandai and Kranji.

A Manpower Ministry (MOM) spokesman said its enforcement officers conducted an inspection of housing quarters in Punggol yesterday morning "to ascertain the workers' living conditions".

Employers "are required to provide acceptable accommodation for their foreign workers", it said.

Those who fail to do so face a fine of up to $10,000, and/or up to 12 months in jail, for each foreign worker housed in poor conditions. They will also be barred from applying for new work passes or renewing existing ones.

MOM also encouraged the public to report such cases so that it can investigate and take action.

There are 200,000 beds in purpose-built dorms with facilities like foodcourts. But many foreign workers continue to be housed in quarters with poor conditions.

The Punggol dorm had broken urinals and choked toilet bowls. Workers also had to bathe using water that was meant to clean machinery, because of the poor shower facilities there.

But a supervisor based at the site said yesterday that the company is making changes.

"The company is trying to make things better for the workers by moving them to another dorm. The conditions here need to improve."

Big foreign worker dorms faring poorly
Construction firms choosing cheaper option of housing workers on site
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2014

DORMITORIES are seeing a sharp drop in business as companies move their foreign workers out of big purpose-built dorms in favour of cheaper options on or near their work sites.

Dorm bosses say that there are at least 5,000 empty beds, and business has been getting poorer.

This is a sudden turn in the state of affairs from just a year ago, when dorm bosses had long waiting lists of employers wishing to house workers in big purpose- built dorms with facilities such as foodcourts and basketball courts.

Now, dorm bosses are blaming firms for the empty beds, saying they are moving workers to construction sites and factory-converted dorms which are dirtier.

Construction bosses, in turn, are blaming dorm operators for setting fees at too high a price.

To date, there are about 40 dorms offering 200,000 beds for foreign workers. Another nine will be built in the next two years, adding 100,000 more beds.

But even before those have been added, Dormitory Association of Singapore president Kelvin Teo said that business has already dropped sharply.

"Business is definitely not as good before. There is some worry from operators about how their business will fare, now that many new dorms are coming up," said Mr Teo.

Part of the reason for this exodus is that more construction firms have been given permission by the authorities to set up quarters on the sites of major building projects. These include sites for new Housing Board flats and MRT stations and lines.

Tiong Seng Contractors director Derick Pay said firms like his are grateful that they are being allowed to house workers on site. It reduces traffic congestion around the area, seeing as workers do not need to be bused in. It also increases efficiency and cuts costs.

"We can reduce two to three hours of travelling time since workers live and work at the construction site," Mr Pay said.

Tiong Seng has about 100 workers living on a site for an upcoming HDB development in Woodlands, and more will be moving in soon.

The Manpower Ministry and National Development Ministry said in a joint reply that "proximity to workplace, convenience and costs" are considered by employers when deciding on housing for workers.

"Employers can house them in a variety of accommodation, such as purpose-built dorms, converted industrial premises and quarters on construction sites", they said in a statement, as long as these meet rules that "ensure the safety and well-being of the occupants".

The Land Transport Authority said there is currently only one dorm located on an MRT project site - that of the upcoming Gul Circle station and viaducts for the Tuas West MRT extension.

Another issue is cost, said Singapore Contractors Association president Ho Nyok Yong.

"The prices for such big dorms keep going up. Some are even charging around $320 a month. That is too expensive," he said.

But some dorm bosses shot back, saying that employers are not interested even when prices are slashed.

Mr Ken Lim, chairman of Singapore's biggest dorm operator Vobis, said response was poor even when he reduced prices to $250 a month from $320 as part of a National Day promotion. In recent months, he has also been advertising in newspapers. The company has at least 3,000 empty beds, across the seven dorms it runs.

"I am not sure what else I can do to attract employers," he said.

Ms Debbie Fordyce, executive committee member of workers' rights group Transient Workers Count Too, said she is sceptical that the majority of bosses will choose to house their workers in pricier purpose-built dorms if they can opt for poorer but cheaper accommodation.

"It's all about cutting cost for employers. Workers will not complain about living in poor housing too, as long as they are paid. The men just want to earn money and go home," she said.

Construction-site quarters home to 500 foreign workers
By Amelia Tan And Aw Cheng Wei, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2014

ON THE corner of Punggol Road is a hut shared by three Indian national construction workers. Made of odd-sized zinc sheets, it appears to have been hastily constructed.

Rust and mould creep on the wall. Beside the tiny kitchen where the men cook curries and rice on an electric stove, is the sleeping area with three mattresses lined back-to-back on the floor. The men shower outside, amid piles of steel rods, using tank water meant for cleaning construction equipment.

It is better than showering in the crowded toilets in the quarters beside their hut, says a worker.

The quarters, located in a Housing Board build-to-order project, is home to around 500 Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi workers.

Boots, caked with mud and sand, fill the corridors outside. But the rooms are kept neat - toiletries are lined up in rows underneath the beds, and blankets are kept folded.

The men sleep on double-decker beds, eight to a room. But there is a stale odour from the wet clothes that are around their beds.

The men say conditions in their rooms are fine but toilet and shower facilities are unbearable. There are broken urinals and choked toilet bowls, in which waste and snack wrappers float in brackish water. The walls are covered with brown mildew.

One Chinese national worker said it has been at least eight months since the water tub, from where the men scoop water to wash, in the middle of the bathroom has been cleaned.

He says that at around 1am every day, waste from the dorm is flushed into drains outside. "It is so smelly and dirty," he said.

The workers told The Straits Times last week that they did not expect to be living in such conditions in Singapore. But they do not know what else they can do, other then bear with it.

"Things are just as bad here as they are at home. I thought Singapore was better," said one Bangladeshi worker.

An Indian national worker, who has worked on the project site for six months, added: "What the company gives me, I take. Happy or not, I must work or the boss will send me home."

Tuas dorm town bustles after dark
As the sun sets on Tuas, the industrial estate in western Singapore roars to life. At a time and place where factory workers would have filed out of buildings to go home, thousands of foreign workers are returning to their home away from home. Welcome to Tuas View Square, a mini dormitory city where over 5,000 foreign workers live.
By Aw Cheng Wei And Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 31 Oct 2014

AS THE sun sets on Tuas, a remote area in a remote industrial estate gets busy.

Male workers clad in T-shirts or overalls stained with mud and grime get off covered lorries and file into factory buildings.

They are not reporting for work but going home after calling it a day at shipyards and construction sites all over Singapore.

Welcome to Tuas View Square, a 500m stretch of road where more than 10 factories have been refurbished into dormitories for foreign workers. It has become a kind of mini dormitory town and a home away from home to more than 5,000 workers, mainly from India and Bangladesh. It's almost a little Little India.

About five years ago, the scene at sunset would have been one of workers from Singapore and Malaysia filing out of the factories in casual attire after changing out of grey, white and blue uniforms.

Then, factories owned by multinational companies churned out goods like electronic parts and chemicals, said shopkeepers in the area.

But as companies relocated to cheaper locations overseas, the factories were turned into dorms by construction and marine firms over the last five years.

There are about 700 factory-converted dorms for foreign workers in industrial estates across Singapore. They house an estimated 100,000 or more foreign workers - about 25 per cent of the work permit holders in lower-skilled jobs in sectors such as construction and marine.

This dorm town in Tuas View Square, where Singapore's largest rubbish incinerator is in sight, is as far from anyone's backyard as can be. While barbed wire on fences or gantries remain, the security measures are unnecessary: Hardly anyone from outside visits.

In the evenings, some denizens of this nearly all-male town - there are only a handful of women, mainly shopkeepers - sit cross-legged on roadside kerbs to chat and drink beer.

The men, some clad in shirts and sarongs, also go on bicycles to visit friends in other dorms.

"I like the quiet," said an Indian shipyard worker. "I am around languages and people I know."

Some dorms have canteens where curries and rice are served round the clock; others house mini-marts and phone shops.

Some Singaporeans do brisk business here selling groceries and mobile phone cards. Mr Jonathan Koh, who is in his late 30s, said each night he and his two staff serve a few hundred workers, who spend $20 to $30 each to top up their phone cards.

"Business is quite good. There are few mobile phone shops here and it takes too long for the workers to travel outside," he said.

Dorm operators have had good business too. A bed in dorms here now costs around $250 a month per worker, up from $100 to $150 five years ago, say employers.

While the area has a relaxed atmosphere, the conditions in the factory dorms are not as good as those in purpose-built dorms, which cost more and have better facilities.

There is an obvious lack of recreational facilities, an issue also raised by a committee that looked into the Dec 8 Little India riots.

A Malaysian who works for a drinks company in Tuas View Square said: "The workers spend most of their free time sitting outside the dorms. There should be sports facilities for them."

Mr K. Ganesh, 49, who runs a mini-mart and canteen, said every night, hundreds of workers come by to buy a few cans of beer each. They munch on murukku as they watch old Tamil movies on large screens. "The workers do hard work. They have a few cans of beer to relax," he said.

The Straits Times wanted to go inside the rooms, but a few owners of the buildings in Tuas View Square declined requests to visit.

Some of the dorms look neat and clean from the outside. However, most of the factory-converted premises appear cramped.

Rows of damp uniforms hang on dusty window louvres. Some windows are boarded up, others show double-decker beds.

Of 20 workers interviewed, only a few said their living areas were clean. Most complained of filth. There are rats, ants and mosquitoes in their rooms, said the men. The pests are drawn to the food left around as there are no storage areas or refrigerators.

A Bangladeshi worker said: "The rats bite our feet when we sleep at night. We set up rat traps but haven't caught any so far."

Another worker said: "My home in India is much cleaner."

Others are frustrated by the lack of toilets, which often get choked. "We have to wait for more than an hour every night and in the morning to use the toilet," said a worker from India.

Some of the dorms have kitchens, which the men say are dirty most of the time. Cleaners wash the dorms infrequently.

But it's not all bad.

While this dormitory town is far from residential areas, it is near workplaces such as the shipyards in Jurong.

A workers' dormitory where welfare is the priority: The $50m PPT Lodge has a gym, a commercial cinema and a games room...
Posted by The Straits Times on Wednesday, February 24, 2016

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