Saturday 22 November 2014

Workers' housing issues need immediate attention

More can be done to educate workers and prosecute errant employers
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 21 Nov 2014

SINGAPORE is known for its squeaky-clean roads and parks pruned to perfection.

But an ugly side exists.

It is the underbelly of filthy and cramped shophouses, apartments and temporary dorms where many foreign workers live.

On Tuesday night, a spot check by foreign worker group Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) and The Straits Times found more than 50 construction workers from Bangladesh and India cramped in two small apartments in Selegie Road.

The men slept shoulder to shoulder, amid rotting food and soiled clothes.

The Manpower Ministry (MOM) is now investigating the workers' employers for housing them in unacceptable conditions and not paying the men.

The employers face fines of up to $10,000, and/or up to 12 months in prison. But there are many more unscrupulous bosses who go scot-free for subjecting their workers to bad housing.

In recent months, The Straits Times has published several reports on unhygienic and over-crowded foreign worker housing.

At the living quarters of a Punggol Housing Board construction site, hundreds of workers use choked and broken urinals.

Over at Tuas View Square, about 5,000 workers live in more than 10 factory-converted dormitories which are infested with rats and mosquitoes.

The Government is acutely aware of the problem and has taken important steps to rectify the situation.

Nine purpose-built dorms, which come with cafeterias and basketball courts, will be built over the next two years. They will add around 100,000 beds to the existing 200,000 in about 40 big dorms.

To move workers to proper dorms, the Urban Redevelopment Authority stopped the building of temporary dormitories in a dozen industrial estates last Friday.

Non-Malaysian workers from the marine and process sectors, which include the chemicals and pharmaceutical sectors, will also not be allowed to live in public housing from next year.

But these improvements will not be felt for some time. In the meantime, concrete steps should be taken to fix the situation for the tens of thousands of workers who continue to live in deplorable conditions.

There are about 700 temporary dorms housing some 100,000 low-skilled foreign workers. The rest are housed elsewhere, such as in HDB flats, apartments or temporary quarters on worksites.

Economists and foreign worker activists said the authorities must step up checks and impose harsher penalties on errant bosses.

Nanyang Technological University economist Walter Theseira said bad bosses know that the "statistical likelihood that one will be caught for housing workers in substandard conditions from purely random checks is very low".

"The penalties are presumably not a severe enough deterrent given the low likelihood of getting caught," said Dr Theseira.

In the first six months this year, MOM conducted about 360 inspections, and took action against about 600 employers for housing violations. Some were just warned and most were fined.

MWC's chairman Yeo Guat Kwang said the authorities must detect, investigate and prosecute bosses who break the law to the fullest extent.

"Only in such an environment will it not be at all worthwhile for anyone to consider gaming or circumventing our laws, no matter what he stands to gain as a result," he said.

Mr John Gee, head of research of Transient Workers Count Too, said MOM can work with non-governmental organisations to conduct high-profile raids of bad housing places.

More importantly, workers should also be empowered to speak up against ill-treatment.

One way is for MOM to expand its Temporary Job Scheme to whistle-blowers. The scheme allows foreign workers to find a new job while waiting for their employment-related claims to be settled.

Workers should also be educated about help channels for them. MWC runs a 24-hour helpline for workers. But it is unclear if workers know about this.

Raising awareness on this front will help combat the problem.

MOM could conduct a dedicated short course to introduce foreign workers to their rights and organisations which can help them.

Currently, employment rights are covered in compulsory safety courses for foreign workers but they are not explained in detail.

Singaporeans can also help by reporting unfair treatment of foreign workers to the authorities.

Said Mr Yeo: "It takes the whole community to truly eradicate injustice to migrant workers. If all of us do our part, we can better conditions for migrant workers in Singapore."

Getting the message across to foreign workers

WE AGREE with last Friday's article ("Workers' housing issues need immediate attention").

In our experience, we have found that upstream malpractices in the migrant workers' home countries, such as false promises about working terms and conditions in Singapore, have caused many of the downstream problems and challenges they face after they arrive here.

Some of these problems are debt burdens incurred from overpayment to home-country agents, abuse from employers, and a general lack of awareness of their employment conditions in Singapore, their rights, and where and how to seek recourse.

In view of this, we worked closely with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to produce the Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) pre-departure video containing important employment-related information such as workers' rights and entitlements in Singapore.

With MOM's support, we aim to secure screenings for workers prior to departure in their home countries, and eventually screen the video on a compulsory basis at as many departure points as possible.

The MWC also hopes that, eventually, all migrant workers will be aware of the available help channels in Singapore. For the MWC, these include a 24-hour helpline, two walk-in help centres in Little India and Geylang, and a community of migrant worker volunteers and friends within many of the major dormitories.

Currently, we try to reach out to migrant workers at their dormitories and through our events to raise awareness of such channels. Our partnership with MOM also ensures that every migrant worker who arrives in Singapore receives the MWC work permit sleeve bearing our helpline number, together with his work permit card.

However, it is still a challenge trying to get more than a million of our foreign workers to be aware of us. We will continue to exhaust all channels to get this message across.

In the meantime, we hope all stakeholders and the public can also do their part to help eradicate injustice to migrant workers through reporting abuses and ill-treatment to the authorities.

Yeo Guat Kwang
Migrant Workers' Centre
ST Forum, 25 Nov 2014

50 workers crammed into two condo units
Many sleep on the floor amid filth; some say they have not been paid
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 20 Nov 2014

ONE unit is the size of a typical two-bedroom condominium apartment and could house a family of about four comfortably.

But two of these units in a condo along Selegie Road were, instead, housing about 50 construction workers from Bangladesh and India, a spot check by the Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) and The Straits Times found yesterday.

Rotting food, soiled clothes and bags were strewn on the grimy floors of the units located in Selegie Centre near Little India.

The men slept shoulder to shoulder on the floor or on wooden boards along the corridors outside the apartments. The walls were stained brown and cabinets were broken, while a damp stench permeated the hallways.

When asked if they thought the conditions were bad or unbearable, the men, nervous from the spot check, could only reply: "I don't know."

According to Urban Redevelopment Authority guidelines, rented residential properties can house a maximum of eight people, regardless of size.

Yesterday's spot check came after the MWC received a call on its hotline on Tuesday afternoon from a worker.

He said that his company, Harri Construction & Maintenance, and some of the company's sub-contractors were putting workers up in poor housing and owed them several months of salaries.

MWC executive director Bernard Menon said: "Our staff who answered the call sensed that there was an urgent need to look into the case. Our chairman, Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, directed us to do a spot check later in the night."

Mr Menon added: "Upon our inspection, we found that the living conditions of the workers are unacceptable. We urge MOM (Ministry of Manpower) to take serious action against the employer. This kind of behaviour cannot be condoned."

MOM officers went down to the scene later and took down the particulars of all the workers there.

An MOM spokesman said: "Our initial assessment is that the units are overcrowded and we are investigating several employers for failing to ensure that their foreign employees have acceptable accommodation."

The spokesman added that the ministry is also looking into the claims of some workers who said they were owed salaries.

Employers found guilty of failing to provide acceptable accommodation can be fined up to $10,000, and/or jailed for up to 12 months.

The MWC team also visited a makeshift hut in Geylang Lorong 8, where some 16 Indian national workers from Harri Construction & Maintenance are living.

The zinc-roof hut is located at the backyard of an apartment block, built above an underground sewage tank.

Some of the firm's workers say they are Employment Pass (EP) and S Pass holders but are paid only $900 a month. The salary requirement for S Pass holders is at least $2,200 and at least $3,300 for EP holders.

"My agent promised me a salary of $4,800 a month. But I get only $900 and my boss hasn't paid me for many months. I have been cheated," said a worker who has a degree in engineering from India.

Harri Construction & Maintenance manager Nallusamy Narayanan dismissed the workers' claims when contacted by The Straits Times.

Mr Nallusamy said the workers are unhappy because they want three days off a week but he offered them only a weekly rest day.

He added: "I want them to stay in proper dormitories. But they want to stay in Selegie because it is near Little India. They like Geylang, because you know, there are girls there and they can drink."

Mr Nallusamy, a Singapore permanent resident and Indian national, said he moved 14 workers temporarily to the apartments in Selegie Centre this week. He insisted there are usually only 15 workers in each apartment.

"They were living in a shophouse in Tanjong Katong but they drank and caused trouble for residents. So I moved them to Selegie for a few days only," he said.

He confirmed that some of his workers had complained to MOM that he owed them salaries. "But later, I paid them their salaries. I don't owe them any money now."

Freeze on temporary dorms in 12 estates
Part of bid to house workers in purpose-built quarters with facilities
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 18 Nov 2014

In a bid to move workers from temporary housing to proper dormitories, the Government has stopped the building of temporary dormitories in a dozen industrial estates.

Workers from the marine and process sectors, which include the chemicals and pharmaceutical sectors, will also not be allowed to live in public housing from next year.

These moves come as the Government ramps up the building of purpose-built dorms with proper facilities over the next two years.

Last week, in a circular to building owners and developers, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) said it will no longer allow new temporary dorms to be built in 12 industrial estates.

This was because several temporary dorms within some industrial estates have "caused a significant strain on existing infrastructure". Limiting the number of dorms will prevent the overloading of infrastructure such as road and sewerage systems, said URA.

Factory-converted dorms in areas such as Changi, Jurong and Tuas have been increasing to meet rising demand from employers looking to house their foreign workers.

There are about 700 temporary dorms housing some 100,000 foreign workers - a quarter of the 385,000 low-skilled foreign workers who need accommodation here.

But such dorms have drawn criticism from migrant workers' groups for their cramped and dirty conditions.

Another 200,000 foreign workers live in purpose-built dormitories.

The rest live in other places such as shophouses and temporary quarters at construction sites.

Nine new purpose-built dorms, with facilities such as foodcourts and basketball courts, will be constructed over the next two years.

They will add about 100,000 beds.

Separately, the Manpower Ministry (MOM) and Housing Board also told employers of workers in the marine and process sectors and flat owners housing them that they will no longer be allowed to house these workers in HDB flats from May 1 next year.

"This change is in line with the longer-term plan to house marine and process non-Malaysian work permit holders in purpose-built dormitories and approved workers' quarters with facilities which better cater to the workers' needs," said MOM and HDB in a letter circulated earlier this month.

There are no official figures on how many workers in these sectors will be affected, although industry estimates put the number at about 4,000.

Industry players said the biggest impact from these moves will be on the bottom line.

It costs about $250 a month to house a worker in a factory-converted dorm, less than the $300 for purpose-built dorms.

"Some purpose-built dorms are far from worksites and cost more," said Dr Ho Nyok Yong, president of the Singapore Contractors Association.

"Operating costs will go up for employers."


New temporary dorms will not be allowed in these industrial areas:
- Changi South Avenue 2 and Avenue 3
- International Road
- Jurong Island
- Kaki Bukit
- Loyang
- Serangoon North Avenue 5
-Shaw Road/Tai Seng
- Sungei Kadut
- Tagore
- Tanglin Halt
- Toh Guan Road
- Tuas

A day in the life of Tuas View dorm
At biggest dorm here, even toilet cleaning, laundry are provided
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 24 Nov 2014

IT'S 10.30pm and some residents of the facility in Tuas South Avenue 1 are preparing to call it a day. On each floor, they wash up in a brightly-lit common toilet that comes with shiny mirrors and 16 shower stalls with doors and spotless floors.

Others are drinking beer outdoors as a breeze wafts in from the Strait of Johor, keeping the 8.4ha compound airy and cool.

Opened in August, Tuas View Dormitory is Singapore's biggest dormitory and a breath of fresh air compared with cramped and dirty housing thousands of foreign workers have to put up with.

The Government is pushing employers to move workers to purpose-built dorms like Tuas View, which have supermarkets, food courts and sports facilities.

The Straits Times reported last week that the Urban Redevelopment Authority has recently stopped temporary dorms - which tend to have poorer conditions - from being built in 12 industrial estates. Non-Malaysian workers from the marine and process sectors, which include the chemicals and pharmaceutical sectors, will also not be allowed to live in HDB flats from next year.

These changes are likely to increase demand for beds in purpose-built dorms such as Tuas View, the first of nine such dorms to be built over the next two years, adding around 100,000 beds to the existing 200,000.

Tuas View has 20 four-storey blocks, housing up to 16,800 workers. For now, it hosts about 5,000 workers in the marine, manufacturing and process sectors.

A dozen of them share rooms of 48 sq m, or 4 sq m per man, higher than the 3 sq m average in other purpose-built dorms here.

An army of operations staff, cleaners and security guards keep the dorm clean and in order.

Mr Charanjeet Singh, general manager of TS Group, which operates Tuas View, said: "Most of the cleaning and maintenance work is done when the workers are out in the day. But we also need to roster security guards and a duty manager 24 hours a day."

Every day about 6am, lorries and buses ferry the men from India, Bangladesh, China, the Philippines, Myanmar and Thailand to worksites.

By 7.30am, the dormitory is mostly empty. Half a dozen staff start washing more than 3,500kg of workers' laundry.

Five industrial-sized washing machines, three pressing machines and seven dryers are used.

The workers leave their soiled work overalls and clothes in the laundry room every day. The cost of the service is included in the average $300 monthly fee employers pay to house each worker at the dorm.

Elsewhere, more than 20 cleaners start scrubbing and disinfecting kitchens, dining halls, toilets and other common areas.

Cleaning the kitchens, on the ground floor of each four-storey block, is the hardest, said Mr V. Ranjan, the dorm's facilities manager. Every night, the floors and stoves are stained with oil, sauce and curry by the workers.

"A team of about four cleaners clears the rubbish and hoses the kitchens down the night before. But imagine the grime left when thousands of guys cook. It's a war zone," said Mr Ranjan, adding that cleaners spend about three hours scrubbing the kitchens.

Most of the workers can cook and they get their ingredients from the dorm's supermarket.

Mr Salaudeen Mohamed Salleh, the supermarket's owner, said his staff serve more than 1,000 workers daily and 3,000 on Saturdays and Sundays.

More than 1,000kg of vegetables such as potatoes, onions and lady fingers and 500kg of chicken, mutton and beef are delivered every evening. Every week, about 2,500kg of rice is delivered.

"Business is very good. Almost all the fresh food is sold out every day," said Mr Salaudeen.

The cleaners and operations staff end their duties about 6pm - when the workers start to return.

After dinner, about 200 workers unwind by watching movies screened in an open field in the dorm. On weekends, the number goes up to more than 1,000. A commercial cinema will open next year to screen the latest films from Bollywood and Hollywood.

There are also sports facilities such as a gym and basketball court, as well as shops selling items such as mobile phones.

Workers can also relax in the beer garden or food court, which both provide free Wi-Fi. Another supermarket, a money remittance shop, a goldsmith shop and two medical and dental clinics will also open soon.

The men say they are happy. Said Mr Feng Xiaoyu, 36, from China: "The rooms are spacious and it is a clean place."

Indian national B. Suryanarayana, 35, said: "We can play football and basketball here. It is good to relax after work."

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