Thursday 30 April 2020

Fake news used to stir up unhappiness in foreign worker dormitories amid COVID-19 pandemic, says Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam

The authorities will take action against those who deliberately spread falsehoods, says minister
Steps taken to improve meals provided to foreign workers
By Charmaine Ng, The Straits Times, 30 Apr 2020

Some people have been spreading fake news about the situation in foreign worker dormitories here, to incite fear, panic and hopefully, violence, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

These individuals, who the authorities understand are both local and foreign, have been circulating such falsehoods in the form of videos, photos, and even doctored images of news channels, he said.

He cited a video clip circulating on social media platforms recently, which claimed that a Bangladeshi worker had committed suicide at a dormitory in Tuas because of lack of money and work.

On Tuesday, the police said the video was not recorded in Singapore and advised the public not to spread untruths. The police also told the public not to circulate the video, which can cause public alarm.

Speaking to reporters via video conferencing yesterday, Mr Shanmugam said such falsehoods are being circulated online to create fear and panic among the foreign worker community of about 300,000 people.

"It's to create panic. It's to create unhappiness, anger and hopefully, violence," he said.

"And also to make our own people, Singaporeans, believe that... these foreign workers are being treated badly. It's a very malicious type of video."

Mr Shanmugam also noted that there was another video circulating of a fight in a dormitory between two men of South Asian origin.

"It was taken in a dorm in Dubai some time ago, but people try and pass it off as being taken in Singapore," said Mr Shanmugam. The city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates has a migrant labour force of 8.7 million.

In another case, an audio recording was being circulated on text-messaging platforms.

"Somebody supposedly working in Sembawang Shipyard, telling the Malay-Muslim community you better go and buy up (groceries) because the Chinese are going to go into a panic-buying mode, and there's a shortage of everything that you can think of," he said.

Old photos of food packets served to foreign workers have also started re-circulating online, suggesting that the quality of food is bad, said Mr Shanmugam.

He added that the food issue has been dealt with by Manpower Minister Josephine Teo, and food quality has "improved tremendously".

"But don't get me wrong, we are delivering several hundred thousand meals, three times a day, to the workers. Majority of them tell us that the food quality is good. I'm not going to say to you therefore, every single packet is good, or every single person is happy - not possible," Mr Shanmugam added.

But some people are deliberately re-circulating these old photos, or photos of food being thrown away in other countries, to encourage foreign workers here to "come out and complain, even when there is nothing to complain" about, he said.

"They don't realise that this is like playing with fire... You use falsehoods to foment trouble and make them angry, you don't know what might happen. There could be a serious law and order situation. This is serious, and we are looking at it seriously," said Mr Shanmugam.

The authorities will take action against those who deliberately spread such falsehoods. "When it's clearly criminal, we will charge them," he said.

Mr Shanmugam was also asked why a Singaporean man was charged in court on Monday instead of being served a correction direction under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), for allegedly posting false claims that supermarkets would open only two days a week as part of enhanced measures.

The man was charged with communicating a false message under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act. If convicted, he can be jailed for up to three years and fined up to $10,000.

Mr Shanmugam said the facts of the case fit with the charge, which was brought on the advice of the Attorney-General's Chambers.

"You look at the previous cases where POFMA was used... in the vast majority, probably, there was no other criminal offence," he added. "When it's a criminal offence, we will take action along those lines... but if it crosses the threshold for POFMA, we will use POFMA."

Foreign worker dorm meals are getting better: Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad
The Straits Times, 30 Apr 2020

Rice, fried chicken, cauliflower, curry and idli (steamed rice cake) - that was yesterday's pre-dawn meal for Muslim foreign workers at Sungei Tengah Lodge.

Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad shared several food photos on Facebook, some with compliments from workers, and addressed concerns some raised about the quality of catered food. He said there were teething issues, but things have gotten better, and are continuing to improve.

By this weekend, the inter-agency task force would have served over 10 million catered meals to all 200,000 workers of more than six nationalities in all 43 purpose-built dorms, he said. Thirty-four caterers are constantly adjusting the meals to take in feedback from workers, with help from employers and 10 like-minded non-governmental organisations with hundreds of volunteers. He urged those with concerns to approach officers on site directly.

Posting on social media to flag a case means officers take time to track it down, and sometimes old photos are circulated, he said. "We do not want to send our officers on a wild goose chase when the time taken could have been better spent in meeting the workers' needs."

Huge task to get meals to thousands of workers: National Development Minister Lawrence Wong
By Cheow Sue-Ann, The Straits Times, 29 Apr 2020

Getting meals to thousands of foreign workers in dormitories was a huge undertaking, particularly in the initial period, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said yesterday when he addressed the criticism levelled at the food they were given.

Many photos and posts have been circulating online in recent weeks as people, including Singaporeans, took to social media to discuss the well-being of migrant workers.

Mr Wong, who is co-chair of the task force fighting the coronavirus, said that when safe distancing measures were implemented, these workers were no longer able to cook for themselves - something they were used to.

"So, the exercise of ramping up the catering to provide for workers, not only in the dormitories, but in the care facilities as well, has been a huge undertaking."

But he has since received feedback from workers, who say the quality of food has improved and many of the initial issues raised have been addressed by the caterers, the minister added.

The inter-agency task force is also mindful that in the month of Ramadan, some changes are necessary to cater to the needs of the Muslim residents who are fasting.

"We need to make some adjustments, like providing bigger portions... (and) something suitable when they break fast."

He added that they could also look into providing something to eat early in the morning, before the workers start fasting.

The caterers and the teams on the ground are very mindful of these issues, and they have been continually making adjustments in response to feedback from the workers, the minister said.

Beyond food, many people have also expressed concern for the mental well-being of migrant workers, who are required to stay indoors all the time as their dorms are deemed to be isolation facilities because of the level of infection.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said his ministry is aware of the stress levels of these isolated workers and their concerns.

His ministry has assigned people to meet and counsel them, as well as provided hotlines for them to call, should they need any assistance.

"We also have ambassadors that will engage and reach out to them to have a better understanding of their mental concerns," he said.

"And should they have any issues, they are encouraged to reach out and contact us through the hotlines, and we will address their mental issues, if any."


Over 10 million meals served to foreign workers confined to dorms
Meals adjusted to suit different tastes after feedback; other teething issues being resolved
By Tan Tam Mei and Jolene Ang, The Straits Times, 2 May 2020

More than 10 million meals have been served to foreign workers since some purpose-built dormitories went into lockdown, with food caterers seeking to address concerns raised about their quality and quantity.

This is no mean feat, as noted by Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad, who said in a Facebook post on Wednesday that the inter-agency task force set up to support the workers would have served over 10 million meals to those in the purpose-built dorms by this weekend.

He said there are 34 professional caterers providing meals to about 200,000 workers - akin to catering for the whole of Ang Mo Kio GRC. The Government is footing the bill for all meals in purpose-built dorms. It is not clear how much the caterers are charging but one of them, Neo Group, said it charges only for ingredients and labour costs.

Teething issues early on sparked criticism about the quality, quantity and the type of cuisine served up but this has improved, said Mr Zaqy.

He told The Straits Times that these issues stemmed from logistics challenges generated by the sheer number of residents in the dorms.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is now ensuring that meals are delivered to residents within 30 minutes of their arrival at the dorms. Tests are also being done with workers from different countries to ensure that the food suits their tastes.

"Some of them prefer a certain variety of rice, like ponni rice, and requested the rice to be cooked for a longer period of time," said Mr Zaqy.

The first catered meal given to Bangladeshi Ahammad Md Ali, 27, when his dorm was gazetted as an isolation area and locked down about two weeks ago was a bag of rice and Indian curry.

He was happy to chomp it down but some of his Bangladeshi friends at Westlite Mandai dormitory found it harder to stomach.

"The food is OK to 'makan' (eat in Malay), but Bangladeshi food is different from Indian food. Some of us are only used to Bangladeshi food," said Mr Ahammad, a safety coordinator who has worked here for seven years.

"Bangladeshi food is less salty. We gave feedback, the next day they sent Bangladeshi food," he added, noting that he usually cooks his own meals in the dorm.

The COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in about 300,000 workers having their movements restricted due to quarantine or stay-home notices, prompting the authorities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and employers to step in to ensure that daily needs are met.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 Migrant Support Coalition comprising NGOs and ground-up initiatives has provided around 17,000 meals to workers in factory-converted dorms and other types of accommodation over the past three weeks.

Migrant Workers' Centre chairman Yeo Guat Kwang said in this "unprecedented situation" everyone, including workers and caterers, has had to adapt and adjust: "It's understandable the workers are upset at the restrictions.

"Just like you and me, it's hard to give up choice and habits, such as being able to cook for yourself."

Indian construction worker Kandan Gopinath, 41, said the food in his PPT Lodge 1A dorm has improved over the past week.

When the dorm was gazetted as an isolation area on April 19, the meals were bland as they lacked the spices he was used to.

"The rice was half-cooked and there were only boiled vegetables and a little curry," he said, adding that things changed after he raised the issue with the dorm operator.

"These few days, the food has been good, like fish curry. But sometimes it can be very oily," he said.

Similarly, caterers who have taken on the task of feeding the hundreds of thousands of workers have had to adapt to the diets of at least six different nationalities.

Catering Solutions, which provides food for five purpose-built dorms, has ramped up its production from 20,000 meals a day to almost 70,000 in the past few weeks, said director Shanmugam Ganesan.

It had previously been catering for workers at Jurong Shipyard and Sembcorp Marine in Tuas, but providing for a bigger group has seen it tweaking its menus according to workers' feedback. It provides Chinese, Indian, Bangladeshi and Punjabi dishes.

"We adjusted the kinds of fish, vegetables and portioning of curries," said Mr Shanmugam, adding that extra portions of rice are also prepared just in case.

Catering Solutions has hired 60 workers to add to its workforce of 100 and tapped technology - it has a number of chapati-making machines - to increase production.

Its kitchens are working 24 hours a day, up from 18, to provide pre-dawn meals for Muslim workers in the dorms during Ramadan.

Mr Ong Yong Shun, an MOM officer deployed at Changi Lodge 2, acknowledged the initial dissatisfaction about the meals but said feedback has led to an improvement in quality. Forward assurance support, or "Fast", teams stationed in the dorms have been having the same meals as the workers, he said.

"This ensures first-hand knowledge of the quality of every meal served and enables us to be proactive in feedback given," he said.

Steps taken to improve meals provided to foreign workers
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 2 May 2020

The inter-agency task force in charge of migrant worker welfare in dormitories has received more positive feedback on the quality, quantity and timeliness of the catered meals being delivered, said its chairman Aubeck Kam yesterday.

Mr Kam, who is Permanent Secretary for Manpower, said the task force would have helped to serve more than 10 million meals by this weekend.

"We've managed to improve the meal timings so that the food gets to residents on time. We've seen more positive feedback on the quality of the food, the quantity of the food and overall satisfaction," he said at a media briefing on the task force's work since it was formed last month.

The food served to dorm residents came under the spotlight recently, after photos circulated on social media that purportedly showed it to be of poor quality.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong had said that constant feedback on this massive undertaking had been received and taken into account, and initial issues resolved.

The commander of the task force, Singapore Armed Forces' Brigadier-General Seet Uei Lim, said meals are provided to all 43 purpose-built dorms. "We plan to cater to different nationalities and food preferences... We cater to the varied food options and we have also established feedback groups to make sure that the quality and timeliness of catered food improve day by day," he said.

The Manpower Ministry said yesterday that meals are served between 30 minutes and an hour after they arrive at the dorms. "We also arrange visits by the chefs to engage the workers and better understand their preferences," it said.

Most dormitory residents have been paid their salaries: Ministry of Manpower
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 2 May 2020

Most of the migrant workers staying in dormitories have been paid their salaries during the circuit breaker period that began last month, even though many had to stop work because only essential services are allowed to operate.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) noted yesterday that about 3 per cent - or about 300 - of the 8,500 employers who have submitted declarations have indicated that they owed salaries to staff.

"MOM is... engaging these employers to ensure that they eventually make payments to the workers," it said, adding that seven employers are reportedly in financial difficulties and may not be able to pay workers.

The Migrant Workers' Centre's Migrant Workers' Assistance Fund will step in to provide relief for these men, the MOM added.

There are 66,000 employers here who hire work permit or S-pass holders, with some of them having staff affected by movement restrictions.

Workers at all the dorms have not been allowed to leave their premises since last Tuesday as part of tighter circuit breaker measures.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said yesterday that "a good number" of the 66,000 employers were interacting with their workers on a regular basis, including making sure that their salaries were paid.

Referring to the portion of employers who had workers who were affected, she told a virtual briefing: "That is the group of workers we are concerned about and want to make sure that they continue to be able to receive their salaries, and the way to do so is to require that the employers pay these workers electronically."

The ministry has made it a requirement for employers to pay salaries electronically and more are now doing so.

The number of workers with bank accounts increased from 472,000 before the circuit breaker period began on April 7 to 521,000 now, the MOM said.

Mrs Teo noted that the Government has announced rebates of past levies paid for each migrant worker. Two months of levies have also been waived, she said.

"So this is to ensure that the employers have the resources to fulfil their obligations to their employees, for their workers in terms of salary and upkeep... Now, so if you then look at the numbers in context, it's a very small group and we are following up with them very promptly.

"So that's an ongoing work and we will continue to support both the employers and the workers to ensure that this aspect of the needs are well taken care of."



New plans to house foreign workers to stem COVID-19
Recovered workers to be in separate housing within dorms, to minimise risk of recurrence
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 2 May 2020

Singapore is moving into the next phase of its battle against the coronavirus outbreak in foreign worker dormitories, and will step up measures to monitor the workers' health and prevent recurrent transmissions there.

The next step will be to place recovered workers in separate housing within dorms, establish community care facilities in the worst-hit dorms for patients with mild symptoms, and transfer those no longer infectious to on-site recovery facilities being built.

A new group under the inter-agency task force on dorms will also focus on preventing infections from spreading at non-purpose-built dorms, such as factory-converted dorms and temporary quarters at construction sites.

New dorms will be built and short-term solutions such as floating hotels and cruise ships used.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo told a press conference yesterday that the inter-agency task force tackling the dorm outbreaks had focused on getting the basics right - such as food, hygiene and salary arrangements - in phase one, before moving on to medical operations in phase two. To date, over 14,000 cases have been reported among foreign workers in dorms.

"We must now get ready for the third phase, where it is about getting the recovery right," she said. "This involves housing recovered workers in suitable accommodation and minimising the risks of recurring transmissions."

Medical equipment such as pulse oximeters to measure a person's blood oxygen levels and heart rate will be used, and workers are encouraged to seek help if their readings are abnormal. They can also consult doctors via video calls.

More than 25,000 foreign workers have been tested for the virus. Over 18,000 beds for isolation and care have been set up, with another 23,000 in the pipeline. Blocks set aside for recovered workers will be disinfected, and those moving in have to follow safe distancing.

"This will again be an enormous challenge, and not just the logistics of it," Mrs Teo said. "Many workers will be rehoused and have to get used to new friends. Many employers will have to adjust to their workers being in different locations with new arrangements."

In the wider community, circuit breaker measures are working and infection numbers are falling, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong. But he said it is premature to expect life to return to normal once this wave of infections is past, or to believe Singapore will be virus-free by next month or July.

He said: "It only takes one case - one hidden case, one cryptic case - to cause new clusters to form."

No comments:

Post a Comment