Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Fatal blaze in Geylang lodgings

Exposed to fire hazards every day
Danger lurks in units that house foreign workers
By Amelia Tan And Aw Cheng Wei, The Straits Times, 9 Dec 2014

FOREIGN workers in Geylang often sleep in dirty, cramped rooms with exposed electrical wires running overhead. Such conditions are common in the area's walk-up apartments, said workers and Singaporeans living in the neighbourhood.

In the early hours of last Saturday, a fire broke out at a shophouse, killing four foreign workers. It was Singapore's worst fire in a decade.

The ground-floor unit where the fire broke out is one of four apartments in the three-storey shophouse at 35 Geylang Lorong 4. A Malaysian family lives in one apartment, with foreign workers from Malaysia, India and China occupying the others.

When The Straits Times visited yesterday, the affected unit and the one above it had closure order letters from the Building and Construction Authority pasted on their doors. Many of the foreign workers living in the two units on the third floor have started moving out.

Foreign workers living in the shophouse said electrical short circuits happen frequently.

Malaysian cleaner Mohd Shazwan Ahmad Zukri, 26, said sparks can often be seen coming from the electrical wires. He stayed in the affected unit for a week this year, but now lives on the third floor.

"A few times (at the apartment which caught fire) when I was charging my mobile phone, sparks came out of the wire. I heard 'boom'. Then there was no electricity. It was scary," he said.

Responding to questions, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) said it had not checked the building before. A spokesman said: "URA had not received any feedback that this particular unit has infringed our rules on subletting."

According to URA guidelines, rented residential properties can house a maximum of eight people, regardless of size. However, foreign workers said the unit which was razed had 11 rooms for more than 20 workers, and that employers paid about $220 a month to house a worker.

One third-floor apartment has seven rooms for about 20 workers. Each room can accommodate eight workers who sleep on double-decker beds.

Workers on the third floor said their employers had not found them alternative housing.

There, the walls were stained brown and floors dirty. A damp stench wafted throughout and exposed wires ran across the ceiling. Electrical extension cords, which looked burnt, covered the floors.

But the neighbouring unit which houses Chinese nationals was clean and neat. Electricians were seen there yesterday. A cleaner from China, who maintains the apartment, said in Mandarin: "I treat this place like my home so I make sure it is neat. We also used to have only 11 workers living here. After the fire, five people moved out."

Singaporeans working nearby said the foreign workers throw their cigarette butts out of the window, and their rubbish directly onto the roadside.

"The trash bags may catch fire if the workers throw their cigarette butts on them," said an employee at the Singapore Glass Association, which has an office beside the unit which caught fire.

URA, the Ministry of Manpower, Singapore Civil Defence Force and the police are investigating the cause of the fire.

Dingy, dodgy, dangerous, but demand undimmed
Units there housing foreign workers much sought after in recent years
By Amelia Tan And Aw Cheng Wei, The Straits Times, 10 Dec 2014

THE shabby walk-up apartments of Singapore's red-light district Geylang hardly look like prime properties. But in recent years, they have become a lucrative source of income for agents who have converted them into living quarters for foreign workers.

The apartments are sought after for their relatively cheap rents, despite the fact that they are often overcrowded and dirty.

Local residents told The Straits Times that a network of agents rents hundreds of shophouses and private apartment blocks around the neighbourhood which belong to individual property owners.

Many of the shophouses, which are more than 50 years old, used to be occupied by Singaporean families but they have moved out over the last two decades.

The owners lease their properties to agents who then sublet the rooms to employers looking for relatively cheap housing for their foreign workers.

The rate for one person at each of the shared units is about $220 a month, compared with $300 in a purpose-built dorm with coffee shops and recreational facilities.

But the Geylang units are poorly maintained, and their living conditions came under scrutiny after last Saturday's early morning blaze in one such unit claimed the lives of four foreign workers.

The ground-floor flat where the fire broke out is one of four in a three-storey shophouse at 35 Geylang Lorong 4. It had 11 rooms housing over 20 foreign workers.

On Monday, The Straits Times visited a unit two floors above the apartment which was razed.

Exposed wires ran across the ceiling and electrical extension cords, which looked burnt, covered the dirty floors. The walls were stained brown.

Still, the demand to rent the apartments has surged over the last five years. Just two years ago, the rent was $180 a month per person, workers said.

Residents and property owners estimate that agents can earn $2,000 or more in profit each month by subletting the rooms. They earn more by adding illegal partitions to house more workers - above the legal limit of eight.

However, the identities of such agents - including those who let out the razed flat - are unclear. They keep a low profile and prefer to work through runners who collect the rent from the workers.

"I have been coming here for over 20 years but I have not seen the agents before," said Mr Tan, a member of Chinese association Siu Heng Wui Kun, which is located near the razed flat. He declined to give his full name. The Straits Times visited the owner's address in Serangoon North on Monday, but no one was at home.

A growing number of agents are eager to get a slice of the foreign worker housing market in Geylang. Mr Hung, owner of the apartment one floor above the unit which caught fire, said several have contacted him several times over the last three years. He declined to give his full name.

They have offered to rent his unit for between $3,000 and $4,000 a month. But they did not leave their names. He said: "Agents will house more workers than what is allowed as they want to earn more money. I don't want trouble, so I said 'no'."

Geylang grassroots leaders said residents have complained numerous times to the authorities about the overcrowded apartments but things have not improved.

"Sometimes, raids are conducted and the foreign workers are sent away... But after a while, they return," said Mr Lee Hong Ping, 45, a grassroots leader in the area for the past eight years.

Foreign workers admitted that they also contribute to the overcrowding. They said some employers may give workers about $200 a month for rent and leave them to find their own housing. Many end up sharing rooms with eight or more friends. This means they pay just $100 to $150 a month and pocket the difference.

Worker S. Rajkumar, 36, an Indian national who has been living in Geylang for the last three years, said: "Workers earn very little. So more money helps us."

MWC urges stern action over unsafe lodging for foreign workers
By Ng Lian Cheong and Vimita Mohandas, Channel NewsAsia, 7 Dec 2014

The chairman of the Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) has urged the authorities to take stern action against employers and landlords, if they flout rules on housing foreign workers.

Mr Yeo Guat Kwang said the workers should also raise the alarm, if their living quarters are not up to standard. The suggestions followed a fire at Lorong 4 Geylang on Saturday, where four workers died.

Officials confirmed that the four killed were Malaysians aged between 37 and 50, and working as cleaners. Several other workers were also injured in the fire.

Neighbours said the unit is believed to have housed more people than allowed, and illegal partitions may have been added to create more rooms.

The cause of the fire is yet to be established, but MWC said all gaps in dormitory housing should be plugged.

"If the reason is really because of gaps in the dormitory arrangements, I hope that the authorities will take all the employers, all the landlords to task,” said Mr Yeo. “It is also important for us to educate the workers to understand how they should identify the safety risk of any of the dormitory, so that they can raise the concerns."

Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said his ministry is in touch with MWC and URA to investigate the matter.

"We have continued over the years to enforce and to look out for dormitories or illegal use of facilities. So in this case, we are working closely with URA that oversees the use of various buildings for the appropriate uses," said Mr Tan. “This is something that we will investigate and make sure we will deal with."

Mr Tan also extended his condolences to the families of the four workers who died.

4 foreign workers die in Geylang fire
4 injured flatmates, two firemen in hospital after early-morning blaze
By Amir Hussain Jermyn Chow, The Sunday Times, 7 Dec 2014

Four foreign workers died after a fire broke out in their apartment on the ground floor at 35, Geylang Lorong 4 early yesterday morning.

Firefighters who responded to the incident at 1.40am found three of the dead men inside a room. Paramedics could not resuscitate them. News reports said the men had no visible injuries on their bodies.

Five other workers and two firefighters were taken to hospital. One of the workers succumbed to his injuries, said the police.

Firefighters extinguished the blaze within 30 minutes with two water jets, said the Singapore Civil Defence Force.

Malaysian newspaper The Star reported that the four who died were Malaysians who worked for a cleaning company. The men were named as Jubitol Rumanjing, 37, Maslan Musundo, 43, and Yusoff Masrong, 49, all from Sabah, and Ramu Kotiah, 50, from Perak.

Chinese paper Shin Min Daily News reported that the affected unit of the three-storey walk-up apartment had 11 rooms, each occupied by up to eight workers.

A Malaysian woman, who has been living in the unit directly above the burnt one for the past eight years with her extended family, said she woke up to thick black smoke. She and her family members then made their way down in the dark.

Hotel cleaner Priscilla Chel, 20, was talking to her friend at the back of their apartment two floors above the affected unit when she smelt something burning.

"It didn't smell like cigarette smoke. It was a strange smell and I thought there was something amiss," the Sarawakian said. "I told my friend to wake everyone up and just run."

With thick smoke at the front of the unit, she and her flatmates managed to get to the ground floor using the staircase at the back of the unit.

Her landlord yesterday told her flatmates - a mix of Malaysian and Chinese nationals - to find alternative accommodation, saying that the unit was not safe, but she said she would stay for another night.

The Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) is working with the police, the Ministry of Manpower and staff of hospitals treating the injured workers to communicate with the workers, and will do its best to help those injured and the relatives of those who died, said its chairman, Mr Yeo Guat Kwang.

Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics executive director Jolovan Wham said the fire was a "tragedy waiting to happen". He said: "There are so many of these walk-up apartments and shophouses in Geylang which house large numbers of foreign workers. It's very clear that most of them are living in conditions which do not comply with existing standards and regulations."

Mr Yeo added: "We take a very serious view of safe and secure housing for migrant workers and urge the authorities to investigate the matter thoroughly and where appropriate, call those responsible to account."

In January, two security guards died in a fire at Marina Bay Suites, while in August, a factory fire at Sungei Kadut, killed one. There were four fatalities from fire incidents last year, and one in 2012.

Introduce fire safety measures at all shophouses

IN THE light of the Geylang fire ("4 foreign workers die in Geylang fire; Sunday), the Singapore Civil Defence Force should conduct checks on all shophouses to ensure fire safety measures are in place.

Such buildings are usually two to three storeys high, with most of their interior structures, including the floors and staircases, made of timber. The only access to the upper floors is via a narrow and steep flight of stairs.

Some windows on the upper floors have fixed iron grills, or are permanently sealed if the room is air-conditioned.

Many of these shophouses have restaurants on the ground floor with adjoining cooking areas, while the floors above are rented out as offices or homes.

Sometimes, the access stairway to the upper floors is located inside the restaurant on the ground floor.

In the event of a fire on the ground floor, people could get trapped upstairs or risk injury by running down a smoke-engulfed stairway.

The authorities ought to require the building owners to construct separate exits for the upper floors, install sprinkler systems and place fire extinguishers on such premises.

All windows must also be barrier-free.

Jolly Wee.
ST Forum, 11 Dec 2014

Approval required for changing use of premises

WE THANK Mr Jolly Wee for highlighting the importance of fire safety ("Introduce fire safety measures at all shophouses"; Dec 11).

The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) takes a serious view of all fire safety violations.

Our records show that the unit that caught fire in Lorong 4 Geylang on Dec 6 ("4 foreign workers die in Geylang fire"; Dec 7) did not have the necessary fire safety certificate to operate as a dormitory. This constitutes a very serious fire safety violation and the SCDF will be taking firm enforcement action against the person responsible.

The SCDF has a comprehensive fire safety inspection and enforcement framework, encompassing four main categories of premises: commercial, industrial, residential and public entertainment outlets.

From January to November this year, the SCDF inspected about 12,500 premises across the four categories. Close to 1,300 notices of fire safety violations were issued to premises having an unauthorised change of use, of which 464 cases involved residential premises. In some of these cases, recalcitrant offenders were prosecuted in court.

Mr Wee listed some observations of how shophouses are being used for other commercial functions.

The SCDF would like to remind the public that any change of use from the original intended purpose of any premises will require approvals from the authorities before they can commence with any commercial activity.

For an SCDF approval, it would be a "Change of Use" application.

This application requires the plans of the fire safety works to be submitted by a qualified person (either a registered architect or professional engineer) certifying that the premises comply with all requirements stipulated in the fire code for the proposed use.

Fire safety is indeed a collective responsibility and feedback is important to us. Members of the public who spot any fire hazard can call our reporting line on 1800-280-0000 or e-mail us at

For convenience, photos and a brief description of the fire hazard can also be submitted using the "mySCDF" smartphone application.

Leslie Williams (Lieutenant-Colonel)
Assistant Director
(Public Affairs Department)
Singapore Civil Defence Force
ST Forum, 22 Dec 2014

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