Monday, 20 July 2015

Life in the dumps: Foreign workers in rubbish bin centres

Foreign workers hired to clean HDB estates are sleeping, eating and resting at bin centres
By Aw Cheng Wei, The Straits Times, 18 Jul 2015

Clocks, religious scriptures and laundry lines hang crookedly off grimy, yellowing walls, while colourful pillows, bolsters and straw mats are stacked neatly on the floor.

The scene is reminiscent of a poorly maintained home, but an overpowering smell of rotten trash from next door is a stark reminder that the place is not exactly home.

Welcome to life in the dumps - a rubbish bin centre in MacPherson Vista. At least three other bin centres - in Yishun, Bukit Panjang and Bukit Batok - also serve as unlikely homes. Their occupants? Foreign workers hired to clean the estates.

This phenomenon was first reported in The Straits Times almost 20 years ago. It still exists today.

According to the Housing Board, bin centres are typically found in older public housing estates.

In HDB blocks built before 1989, residents throw waste down the chutes in their flats. The rubbish is manually collected from each block and transferred to bin centres to be picked up by garbage trucks.

Most of the bin centres come with a toilet for the convenience of the refuse collection workers. "Some may come with a storeroom to be used as a work and storage area," said an HDB spokesman. But he stressed that "bin centres are not meant for residential use".

What The Straits Times saw during recent visits to eight bin centres that were occupied painted a different picture. During visits after 9pm last month and earlier this month, workers were seen lying on mats or mattresses, watching videos on their cellphones, sleeping, or having dinner.

Pots, pans and cooking oil were placed neatly on shelves in some bin centres. During one visit, the workers were cooking curry.

By about 1am, the workers would lock up and turn on the standing fans, their only other ventilation in the windowless rooms, apart from the air vents located near the high ceiling. Light snoring could be heard from outside.

When approached, the workers - all Bangladeshis - denied living in the bin centres. They also declined to give their names, for fear of losing their jobs. "We rest here when we finish our work," said a cleaner who works at Block 731, Yishun Street 72. "We always go back around midnight, after we finish charging the rubbish tram."

At Block 105, Aljunied Crescent, cleaners said they live in an HDB unit in Balam Road, which is about 10 minutes away on foot.

A cleaner at Block 211, Bukit Batok Street 21, said he lives at Senoko Industrial Estate near Sembawang. He was dressed only in a sarong when ST was there at 11pm. He said he was going to the MRT station but made no move to pack up.

While not admitting to living in bin centres, the cleaners said they enjoy being there because the centres are spacious. In the housing provided to them, all of them said they share rooms with at least three other workers. "It is quiet here," said the Bukit Batok cleaner.

Convenience is another factor. "We can relax," said a cleaner in Pending Road in Bukit Panjang. "In the afternoons, when we have lunch, we don't have to walk to our (flats) and back, so we save time."

Others do so to save money.

Ms Debbie Fordyce, executive member of human rights group Transient Workers Count Too, said: "Bin centres should be considered unsatisfactory housing, but most workers prefer the bin centre to having the cost of an approved dormitory deducted from their salary."

She added that those with families to support would rather have more money to send home than spend on comfortable accommodation for themselves here.

When contacted, the relevant town councils stressed that cleaners are not allowed to live in bin centres and they take the welfare of the workers very seriously. Contractors who mistreat their workers will be dealt with, they said.

A spokesman for Nee Soon Town Council said it has spoken to its contractors and done checks. "All our contractors rent units and dormitory rooms for cleaners as their permanent living quarters."

A Jurong Town Council spokesman said cleaners "occasionally take a rest" in the bin centre. Contractors rent quarters on the ground floor of multi-storey carparks from HDB for workers to live in.

A Marine Parade Town Council spokesman said it ensures that workers are provided with proper housing, but it allows them to rest in the room within the bin centres. They are usually those who need to clean markets and food centres after they are closed at night.

Responding to queries, HDB said that it does not have readily available information on the number of bin centres.

The Manpower Ministry (MOM) said it is aware of instances where foreign workers choose to move out of their provided accommodation for various reasons, without their employers' knowledge.

In such cases, employers should update the ministry of any change in addresses and ensure that their workers are housed in conditions that comply with the relevant agencies' rules.

MOM also urged employers to "take due diligence to check their workers' accommodation, to ensure compliance with existing rules and regulations".

Negligent employers who violate Work Pass conditions face a maximum penalty of a $10,000 fine or 12 months' imprisonment per offence. They may also be banned from hiring foreign workers.

For those workers who choose to live in the bin centres, the foul smell is not an issue - they have got used to it, they said. "We are not construction workers; we are cleaners," said one worker. "The (nasty) smell is part of our job."

Additional reporting by Toh Yong Chuan

Time to clean up cleaners' housing woes

We welcome the spotlight on the welfare of Bangladeshi cleaners in Housing Board estates ("Life in the dumps"; last Saturday).

Efforts to deal with the issue of workers sleeping, eating and resting in bin centres need to fully consider why workers have ended up there in the first place.

Bangladeshi cleaners in HDB estates typically work 12-hour days, every day. They do not get rest days. Those who clean the wet markets may work 16-hour days. They are on call 24/7 and may have to attend to residents' demands at odd hours.

It was briefly mentioned in the article that cleaners may be resting in bin centres because these centres are closer to their workplace and less crowded than employer-provided housing.

The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics has heard of instances where workers are housed in remote locations, crammed conditions, and/or prohibited from cooking at employer-sponsored housing.

There are other disturbing dimensions of their working lives that need to be highlighted.

Bangladeshi cleaners' recruitment fees are extremely high ($8,000 to $12,000 or more), while their starting basic salaries are as low as $400 a month, which is less than the foreign worker levy employers have to pay.

Workers are sometimes asked to pay $2,000 to $3,000 to renew their contracts, thus adding to the men's considerable debt burdens.

It is vital to consider the broader context of "choices" made by migrant workers, and juxtapose any such judgments with the grim reality that workers may "prefer" to rest or reside in objectionable surroundings because of a lack of decent alternatives.

Raids to remove and prohibit workers from bin centres are surface interventions that may appear to solve the "problem" without substantively improving workers' well-being.

Interventions to resolve poor living conditions must also take into account the exploitative working conditions of men who perform daily essential work in our country, and the grave asymmetries in bargaining power that lead many to live in the dumps in a country renowned for its high living standards.

Tam Peck Hoon (Ms)
Legal, Advocacy & Awareness
Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics

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