Monday 28 March 2016

A taste of life in an 'HDB-style' dorm for foreign workers

Aw Cheng Wei spends four days and three nights staying in a Woodlands foreign worker dormitory with an HDB apartment theme to get a sense of the workers' living conditions and find out how they spend their time.
The Sunday Times, 27 Mar 2016

In a part of Woodlands overlooking the Sembawang River, two high-rise blocks offer three-bedroom apartments and amenities ranging from basketball courts to a gym and supermarket.

Woodlands Westlite is almost like a Housing Board estate and is populated by people of three dominant nationalities - Indian, Bangladeshi and Chinese. Others include Thai and Myanmar nationals.

Its 2,500 residents live in apartments that are like four-room HDB flats, with four sleeping in each of the three bedrooms, and sharing a living room, two toilets and a kitchen. At most purpose-built foreign-worker dormitories here, more than 10 workers sleep in one room.

Woodlands Westlite, which was completed last July, is one of the larger and better-equipped dormitories for foreign workers here.

The HDB apartment theme is a new concept that Westlite, one of Singapore's biggest dormitory operators, is trying out, said dormitory manager Robert Lau.

Having four workers to a room allows more privacy, he said, and is aimed at helping those who work in shifts. "Whenever a worker comes back from his shift, he can turn on the lights without disturbing too many of his co-workers," he said.

Earlier this month, the dorm opened its doors to The Sunday Times and allowed this reporter to stay there for four days.

Like HDB blocks, the two blocks at Woodlands Westlite have void decks with facilities such as television rooms. Located in an industrial area in Woodlands, the dorm is relatively accessible - workers can take buses from three MRT stations to reach the dorm.

The convenience and facilities, however, do not come cheap - beds cost $280 to $300 a month, more than double that at some dorms.

In the evenings, after a hard day's work, workers return to the dorm on bicycles, pick-up trucks and lorries. Some walk.

Before they head to their units, they pick up groceries at a supermarket stocked with frozen meat and other food and daily necessities from their hometowns.

Round the corner from the supermarket, a restaurant serving mostly curry is open until 11pm. Workers who want to unwind with a can of beer can also do so at the tables provided or grass patches nearby.

"It's very convenient," said Indian construction worker Ahmad Amaraguru, 29, who lives on the fifth floor. "I don't have to carry rice from the (nearest) MRT stations like Woodlands or Sembawang."

His colleague, Mr Arun Pandiyan, 24, added: "I don't need to go to Little India to buy food from my home, so I can relax more."

In a step up from HDB estates, Woodlands Westlite boasts better security - residents enter via an electronic gantry using a keycard that has their photo, name and unit details. They also have to undergo a face recognition system.

Mr Lau said: "It helps to protect our residents and facilities from trespassers who may not stay at this dormitory."

Once the workers are back in their units, they often unwind by speaking to their wives and children or catching up on their favourite television programmes - but not before they have dinner.

Curry is usually the grub of choice for workers from Bangladesh, India and Myanmar, who often cook curry with fish, chicken or mutton with vegetables, and eat it with rice.

The workers, who usually cook in pairs, take turns to watch the pot while their flatmates take a shower.

For those who cannot find spices from home, they make do with what the supermarket has to offer.

Mr Win Kyaw, 29, who is from Myanmar and works in catering here, prepares his dinner with Chinese chilli oil and Indian curry spices.

Cooking helps the workers to save more money to remit home.

About 10 workers said they send home more than three-quarters of their pay, which can range from $1,200 to $2,800, to siblings, parents or their wives and children.

Each meal costs about $5 and is shared by two workers, said Mr Ahmad. They also cook enough to pack for lunch the next day.

Breakfast is coffee and a few slices of bread. Mr Ahmad said: "Waking up is hard already."

Bangladeshi and Indian workers in the same apartment exchange recipes - the former prefer curry cooked with tamarind and the latter, with masala or ground spices.

At about 8pm, they sit on the floor in a circle around the living room to have dinner. In quieter rooms where workers work in shifts or have different schedules, they eat alone or with a friend.

Mr Win Kyaw was watching a Korean drama on a local TV channel while having dinner with his colleague. "I can learn English because I try to read the subtitles," he said.

After dinner, workers wander off alone to the corridor, open grass patches or the first floor, where the signal is stronger, to call their wives or children on Skype or FaceTime. Wi-Fi is provided, a luxury compared with most basic dormitories.

Those who are more fitness-conscious may head to the gym, open fitness area or the courts where they can enjoy a game or two of cricket or basketball. Some also head to the games room to play pool or Bangladeshi carrom.

"We can play with people from other countries or talk to them," said Mr Win Kyaw, who likes to play pool. "Anyone who wants to play can join in."

The games also help bring workers together, especially Chinese labourers who may find it harder to integrate into the community as they cannot speak English unlike workers from other countries.

Mr Yang Guo Lei, a 36-year-old lorry driver from China, said it was hard to connect with his flatmates from India because of their different habits. For example, he and the other Chinese tend not to wear shoes in their rooms, and he would remind the Indian residents to remove their footwear when entering his room, which he shares with three other Chinese workers.

"They respect me," said Mr Yang in Mandarin. "So I wear slippers when I go into the living room (like my Indian flatmates), something I am still getting used to. But I think it helps to maintain harmony if we don't argue about living habits."

His Indian flatmates would greet him when he returns home from work and try to clean up the kitchen after they are done cooking, which Mr Yang appreciates.

"I work in a catering company so I bring food and fruits back for everyone to share," said Mr Yang, who is called "Da Ge" or big brother, even by his Indian flatmates.

By 10.30pm, workers start heading back to their units. They sleep on double-decker beds with plywood boards, which they say keeps the room cooler. They can ask for mattresses, but few do. Some use straw mats to soften the hard surface and lay their heads on pillows.

"We also do not need to wash (mattresses or bedsheets)," said Mr Pandiyan. "When you have so many (sweaty men) who live in one room, there can be a strong smell and we may need to wash more often."

At Westlite, checks are conducted once a month to make sure that units are well kept.

While the hygiene standards were largely good for a dorm, there were cockroaches or bugs at night in the bedroom this reporter was sleeping in, likely a result of food waste not regularly cleared in the kitchens.

Overall, most residents are happy to call this place home.

Mr Win Kyaw, who used to live on the premises of his catering company until last year, said: "I really like living here because it is so clean and convenient... It feels like a community and people get along."

Not all dorms are spick and span
By Joanna Seow and Aw Cheng Wei, The Sunday Times, 27 Mar 2016

Rats in bedrooms, dirty cooking areas, toilets which do not flush - a small number of purpose-built living facilities for foreign workers here are more dump than dorm.

Large purpose-built dorms - described as the best way to meet the accommodation needs of the 380,000 or so work permit holders living here - have sprung up on Singapore's outskirts in recent years. Most premises are well-maintained with air-conditioned sick bays, gyms and games rooms.

But workers staying in three purpose-built dormitories in the northern and north-western parts of the island say they have plenty to complain about.

At Ama Keng Hostel in Lim Chu Kang, several residents told The Sunday Times that there were mice in the bedrooms. These mice have attracted snakes as well. And for every 10 toilets, there are around seven that cannot be flushed properly. "I don't know how many dorms there are in Singapore but I think this is the (worst) one," said a Bangladeshi marine worker, 35, who gave his name as Mr Roki.

A spokesman for the dorm operator said if the conditions were so bad, tenants would have reported them. "We have our cleaning service that cleans every day. It's stayable," he added.

At Kranji Lodge 1 in Kranji Road, workers from China complained that rooms, which host about 10 workers each, are stuffy and they are not allowed to plug in extra fans. They are also often woken up by rats and cockroaches.

A construction worker, who wanted to be known only as Mr Zhou, said a rat once landed on him, causing him to hit his head on the base of the upper bunk bed. "I didn't realise Singapore could be so dirty," said the 27-year-old who had been staying there for three years.

The dorm's operator did not reply to queries by press time.

At Simpang Lodge 2 in Yishun, residents return to dirty toilets and kitchens and rats, plus there are no washing machines, said an Indian painter who gave his name as Rone, 36.

The dorm has a bed capacity of 9,000, but workers said it only has space for a few hundred to sit and eat during mealtimes. They also said there are not enough washing machines but if they wash their clothes in the toilets, they can be fined $30. Dorm security manager Anthony De Silva said washing of work clothing in the washrooms is not allowed to prevent debris from soiled clothing from clogging the plumbing.

Weekly anti-rodent measures are also taken by the pest control vendor, and additional traps are put out if workers complain, he said. "But if a single resident does not clean up, for instance his cooking utensils, that is enough to trigger rodent nuisance," he added.

Mr Rone said the rooms were clean and new when he moved in around four years ago, but conditions deteriorated after a year as the dorm became more crowded.

The Ministry of Manpower and other government agencies conduct regular inspections of dorms, said an MOM spokesman. If dorm operators do not provide adequate living conditions for the workers, they may be issued a warning, fined or face prosecution, depending on the severity of the breach.

MOM, one of several authorities regulating foreign worker housing, said there were complaints about living conditions in two purpose-built dorms last year. "One operator has received a warning letter, while the other is being investigated. Both have taken action to address the complaints," said the spokesman.

The ministry is now looking into two other purpose-built dorms that may have flouted the rules.

There are around 50 purpose- built dorms in all.

Transient Workers Count Too executive committee member Debbie Fordyce said that even if living conditions are hard, most workers will not speak up about it.

She added: "They would rather endure an awful lot of hardship than make a complaint that could cost them their jobs."

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