Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Singapore to build new dormitories with improved living standards for migrant workers

Plans to overhaul housing for foreign workers unveiled
Temporary bed spaces for 60,000 migrant workers to be ready by the year-end as 11 purpose-built dorms are constructed
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 2 Jun 2020

Some 60,000 short-term bed spaces will be created to house foreign workers here by the end of this year in the first step towards a major overhaul of dormitories announced yesterday.

With workers staying in these cramped quarters accounting for more than 90 per cent of the COVID-19 cases in Singapore, the dorms of the future will be designed not only to reduce the risk of similar outbreaks, but also to respond quickly to them.

Each worker will have more space to himself, greater hygiene discipline will be instilled among the workers, and better segregation practices will be put in place.

Short-term beds will be a step in that direction. They will reduce the density of foreign workers staying in existing dormitories while helping to cut the risk of COVID-19 transmission among foreign workers when they leave interim facilities like army camps, said Mr Lawrence Wong, co-chair of the multi-ministry task force tackling COVID-19.

About 25,000 of these beds will be what the authorities term Quick Build Dormitories, which can be assembled within a few months and last for two to three years.

Another 25,000 will be fitted in currently unused state properties, such as former schools and vacant factories, while the remainder will take the form of temporary quarters at construction sites.

The new Quick Build Dormitories will serve as a test bed for the Government to pilot improved standards for dorms before it decides on specifications for new permanent dormitories, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo.

Five workers will share a set of toilet facilities, compared with 15 under current rules. There will be a maximum of 10 beds per room, with only single-deck beds allowed and at least 1m of spacing between them. A typical dorm today has 12 to 16 workers sleeping on double-decker beds in each room.

The plan is for 11 of these new purpose-built dorms to be built in the next two years, providing more permanent lodging for these 60,000 workers, said Mr Wong, who is also National Development Minister.

More such dorms will be built in the medium term to house an additional 40,000 workers. This additional capacity will be used to house workers staying in existing dorms so that such dorms can then be upgraded to meet the higher standards, he added.

Yesterday, task force members repeatedly stressed the need for not just new dorms, but also better practices that strengthen Singapore's resilience against pandemic risks.

Different models, such as one where the Government owns the dormitory but leases it out to be run, are also being studied, said the task force.

"It is not just that we try and reduce the risk of widespread transmission, but how we can respond more effectively when there is an outbreak," said Mrs Teo.

She noted that the Government can make rules so that fewer people share a room or communal facilities, but "that is actually the easier part". "There must also be discipline in the practice of hygiene and segregation," she added.

"The dormitories will also have to be managed differently, with operators helping to instil a higher degree of discipline, for example, on inter-mixing, and ensuring tight isolation of infected workers," she said.

The Government will work with dorm operators and employers to reinforce these norms.

Singaporeans also have to play their part by rejecting the "not in my backyard" mindset, said Mr Wong, who noted that Singapore's land scarcity means it is inevitable that new dorms will have to be quite near to residential areas.

Doing so will help Singapore become a more inclusive society, an important lesson from COVID-19, he added.

"We really need to appreciate the contributions of all that our migrant workers have been doing and will continue to do in building Singapore, and welcome them as part of our community."

Most residents understand why migrant workers moved to estates: MPs
Measures taken to minimise contact between workers and public, they say
By Linette Lai and Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 3 Jun 2020

At the former Serangoon Junior College campus, work has already started to turn the building from a school into a temporary home for migrant workers.

The facility in Upper Serangoon Road is one of 36 sites that have been earmarked to house healthy workers in the short to medium term to reduce crowding in dormitories amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Some of these sites are located in the middle of residential estates.

Workers at these places will go to work via transport arranged by their employers, and not be allowed to leave the premises on their days off. Instead, facilities such as minimarts, barber services and entertainment options will be set up at most sites.

The vast majority of coronavirus cases have been found among migrant workers in dormitories, prompting calls to relook these workers' living conditions.

Senior Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth Sim Ann, an MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, said yesterday it would be prudent for temporary migrant worker housing sites to remain self-contained until an effective vaccine arrives, "for the same reason that we minimise contact between households".

Several blocks along Kismis Avenue in her Bukit Timah ward have been converted into temporary migrant worker accommodations.

MPs interviewed said most residents understand the reasons for this move, adding that steps have been taken to minimise contact between workers and the general public in the interest of public health.

But some residents fear that security or cleanliness in their neighbourhoods may be affected by migrant workers moving in.

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth Baey Yam Keng said he hopes residents will not have the "not in my backyard" mindset towards the workers. In 2009, Serangoon Gardens residents objected vociferously to plans to build a foreign workers' dormitory there.

Hougang MP Png Eng Huat noted that workers housed in the Serangoon JC site will observe safe distancing measures, and strict entry and exit rules will be put in place.

"I am quietly confident Hougang residents will have no major issues with these temporary residents moving in," said the Workers' Party MP.

For retiree Hia Nui Kwang, 67, who lives near the site, having foreign workers there is fine as long as they are not sick. "I would feel uncomfortable if it is used to house foreign workers who have fallen ill."

In some areas, residents have put together care packs for workers moving in. Tampines GRC MP Desmond Choo said: "People have been wanting to write notes of encouragement and donate food, sanitiser and things for daily use. We are getting all sorts of requests."

Residents in his area were given advance notice before around 400 workers moved into the old Qiaonan Primary School premises in Tampines Street 11 last week.

A similar drive took place over the Hari Raya period for workers to be housed at the former Chancery Court in Dunearn Road, said Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Melvin Yong.

The estate can hold about 1,200 people. Mr Yong added that residents were given a dedicated e-mail address and a hotline number to call if they have any queries.

But not everyone is comfortable with workers living nearby.

Said a 53-year-old owner of a real estate company, who wanted to be known only as Audrey: "It is quite a large group of workers - if they are unhappy about anything, they may quarrel and it could lead to unrest in the neighbourhood."

Housewife Serene Yeo, 50, was concerned that workers would eat at nearby void decks but not clear up the food afterwards.

Nominated MP Anthea Ong, who is part of a volunteer-led initiative to encourage Singaporeans to be more welcoming towards relocated migrant workers, said: "What we need to do is to get residents to see (the workers) as human, and not just feel assured that they won't be coming out of their compounds."

Associate Professor Leong Chan-Hoong of the Singapore University of Social Sciences' Centre for Applied Research pointed out that the community has generally put in very little effort in the past to interact with migrant workers. "So, if they are going to be part of the social landscape, the next question is how much they or we can reach out, in terms of ground-up grassroots movements.

"If you have volunteer work, for instance, if there are rental blocks in HDB estates that need help with plumbing or electrical works, maybe workers have skills they can volunteer. Likewise, there could be opportunities for Singaporeans to organise social activities with the workers," he added.

Nominated MP Walter Theseira noted that negative stereotypes cannot be changed overnight, especially if people have no experience of having migrant workers living nearby. "I would say day-to-day interactions, at hawker centres and shops, and on public transport, are likely to have more potential to make a difference," the economist said.

"If we see migrant workers go about their lives just like we do, I hope we will come to the conclusion that the stereotypes are incorrect."

Additional reporting by Ong Wee Jin and Kevin Lim

Foreign workers still needed in construction: Lawrence Wong
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 2 Jun 2020

While Singapore will continue to push for fewer foreign workers, it is not realistic to do without them entirely in the construction industry, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said yesterday, as he unveiled plans for new dormitories for workers.

Despite efforts to reduce their number and increase the "Singaporean core" in this sector over the years, there is still a lot of manual work required at work sites, which is hard to fill with locals, Mr Wong noted in response to a question about the Government's projections for the number of foreign workers, during a virtual media conference.

Questions have been raised by political commentators about the need to have so many foreign workers in Singapore, following the coronavirus outbreak in dorms. Migrant workers account for more than 90 per cent of the 35,292 cases in Singapore so far.

Several business groups and trade associations, including those representing the construction sector, issued statements last week against calls to restrict their foreign worker numbers, saying that doing so would hurt Singapore's economic recovery and harm job prospects for Singaporeans.

Non-governmental organisations have long highlighted the hygiene and welfare issues in cramped workers' quarters, and Mr Wong announced yesterday that 100,000 dorm spaces will be built in the next few years. Among the aims is to reduce the density in dorms.

He said the bulk of migrant workers are in the construction sector, numbering about 320,000.

"We have, over the years, in fact, been trying to reduce that number. It is not a new thing."

Some progress has been made, with good take-up rates for scholarships, Mr Wong said, and these scholarship holders have a range of jobs, from architects to engineers and project managers.

But there is still a lot of manual work required at construction work sites. "So, I think it will not be realistic to talk about doing away entirely with migrant workers in the construction sector," he added.

"We will continue to give a bigger push towards our automation and prefabricated initiatives that is already happening in the built environment."

New standards to be piloted at upcoming Quick Build Dorms
Such shorter-term housing will see fewer residents sharing a room, toilets and sick bays
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 2 Jun 2020

New standards will be established for upcoming migrant worker dormitories, including lowering the number of residents per room and the number of people who must share toilets and sick bays.

These specifications, announced yesterday, will be piloted at upcoming Quick Build Dormitories that form part of the short-to medium-term housing for 60,000 workers to be built by the end of this year.

Another 100,000 spaces to replace these shorter-term arrangements are also in the works, including 60,000 beds at 11 purpose-built dorms that will be ready in the next two years, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong said at a virtual media conference.

The purpose-built dorms will have amenities like minimarts, barber shops and indoor recreation facilities as well as access to medical care and support.

These are part of efforts to reduce the density of the dorms, and also to ensure that the dorms would be more resilient to public health risks such as pandemics, added Mr Wong, who is co-chair of a multi-ministry task force handling the coronavirus outbreak.

Excess capacity is being built at these new dorms. The extra space can be used to house workers from existing ones so that they, too, can be upgraded to meet newer standards. "This will be a major building programme that we are putting in place to build additional capacity with higher standards," said Mr Wong.

The living conditions of foreign workers in dormitories have come under scrutiny in recent weeks as the workers account for more than 90 per cent of COVID-19 cases here.

The Quick Build Dormitories are semi-permanent structures that will last for about two to three years, with a total capacity of about 25,000. Sites identified for these dorms include Kranji Way, Choa Chu Kang Way and Tampines Industrial Avenue 2.

The dorms will have no more than 10 beds per room, with only single deck beds and 1m spacing between them. Each room currently holds 12 to 16 beds.

Not more than five people will share a toilet, bathroom and sink, compared with 15 people currently. Each resident will enjoy 6 sq m of living space, compared with 4.5 sq m now.

Other shorter-term arrangements that are being planned include the temporary fitting out of state properties that are currently not in use, such as former schools and vacant factories. These will provide space for about 25,000 beds in total.

Apart from this, there will be additional temporary on-site housing at construction sites. This will help contractors cut down on transportation costs.

The upcoming purpose-built dorms will have blocks that are well spaced out to ensure good ventilation, the Manpower and National Development ministries said in a joint statement.

The move to improve dormitory standards has been an ongoing process and this is not the first time that such an exercise is being attempted, said Mr Wong.

Responding to a question on whether the Government would consider taking over the building and operations of these dorms, as well as about the costs involved, Mr Wong said different models are still being studied, including one where the Government builds and owns the asset.

Acknowledging that the additional and improved dorms will come at a higher cost, Mr Wong said the best way to manage this cost increase would have to be worked out, although employers and dorm operators will have to bear part of it. But the Government may consider providing some support as a transitionary measure, he added.

He stressed that changes would need to be made not just in terms of the "hardware", or the building of dorms.

"I think we have learnt from this experience that an important part of this process for infection control is the management of the dormitories. That is quite critical.

"So, our aim will be to find ways to improve that management capacity in order to ensure that the workers in the dormitories have good living standards, but also are kept safe, even through what is likely to be the reality of COVID-19 for quite some time to come."

Former Serangoon JC and Innova JC among 36 properties to be converted into temporary housing for foreign workers
By Timothy Goh, The Straits Times, 2 Jun 2020

Thirty-six unused state properties, including former schools, will be converted into temporary accommodation for migrant workers by the end of this year.

The joint announcement by the National Development and Manpower ministries yesterday came shortly after the multi-ministry task force tackling the coronavirus outbreak said about 60,000 bed spaces for migrant workers could be made ready by the year end.

About 25,000 migrant workers will be housed at the 36 sites, which include vacant factories and tentage at the National Service Resort & Country Club Kranji.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the task force, said: "For now, we have been using sites like army camps and sports halls, as well as some vacant HDB flats, to decant workers... in order to reduce the density of the dormitories.

"But these are temporary solutions because, eventually, these sites will have to be returned to their original users and, therefore, we need more sustainable solutions for new dormitory solutions."

In their statement, the ministries said that together with eight new Quick Build Dormitories, which will be built by the end of this year, the 36 converted properties will be a short-to medium-term arrangement to house the workers.

The properties will eventually be replaced by new purpose-built dormitories, which will house up to 100,000 workers in the long term.

Some of the 17 former schools that will be converted are the former Innova Junior College at 21 Champions Way and the former Tampines Junior College at 2 Tampines Avenue 9.

Mr Wong said: "In land-scarce Singapore, it is inevitable that some of these new dormitory sites would be quite near residential areas. So, all of us must do our part by rejecting the not-in-my-backyard mindset."

He added that Singaporeans "really need to appreciate" the continued contributions of migrant workers in building Singapore, and "welcome them as part of our community".

40,000 migrant workers from dorms cleared of COVID-19 infection, can return to work pending approval
Which workers can leave dorms for work? Find out with new app, SGWorkPass
By Olivia Ho, The Straits Times, 2 Jun 2020

A new app, SGWorkPass, will show which migrant workers can leave their dormitories for work.

It is one of the new measures the inter-agency task force handling the COVID-19 situation in the dormitories is rolling out, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said at a virtual media conference yesterday.

She said almost all migrant workers have downloaded the app, which is one of the technological solutions co-developed with the Defence Science and Technology Agency and GovTech to enable the safe resumption of work.

"This new access code feature will allow the workers themselves, their employers as well as the dormitory operators to have clarity about who can exit the dormitories to work," she said.

Workers will get a "green status" on the app to indicate that their employer has been granted approval to resume operations, and that the dorm they stay in has been cleared.

About 40,000 migrant workers who stayed in dorms have been cleared of COVID-19 infection and may return to work, pending approval from the authorities.

Of these, 12,000 are essential workers who had already been moved out of dorms into other short-term accommodation.

More than 20,000 workers have recovered from the coronavirus and been rehoused at various temporary sites.

A further 8,000 are dorm residents who have either tested negative for COVID-19, or have since fully recovered from the coronavirus, been discharged and are now staying with their fellow workers back in the dorms.

Mrs Teo added that a first batch of 60 dorms - including three purpose-built dorms as well as 57 factory-converted dorms and construction temporary quarters - will be cleared from today.

She said this means that "every block in a dorm has been cleared and every resident in those blocks has been cleared of COVID-19 infection".

The task force has improved medical support for migrant workers to enable them to return to work safely, she noted.

This includes a programme of systematic and regular testing as well as enhanced health surveillance to enable early detection of any infection or re-infection among the cleared workers.

Asked how re-infection can be prevented, Mrs Teo said that greater discipline will have to be instilled in the way workers interact with one another. "The simple idea is that you cannot go back to the practices of the past," she said.

Workers have to be split into cohorts who work and live together, she said. Safe distancing measures must be implemented in the dorms, like erecting barriers between blocks so that residents of different blocks do not mix.

Rest days need to be staggered and workers should use only communal facilities like toilets that they are designated to, she added.

"When you and I go home every day, our household maybe consists of another three, four or five people," she said.

"But for the migrant workers, when they go home to their dormitories, their home is a much bigger home with many more members that they get to interact with.

"So, if you want to reduce the risk, you have got to find a way to do so (such) that the interactions are brought to a minimal level."

Mrs Teo cautioned that re-infection remains a risk, even with all these measures in place.

"What we therefore need to layer on is a rigorous system to test the workers, and that is what we are working on," she said.

Stay vigilant, PM Lee Hsien Loong urges as circuit breaker period ends
By Choo Yun Ting, The Straits Times, 2 Jun 2020

Singapore has to remain cautious and vigilant after exiting the circuit breaker, as dealing with the coronavirus pandemic is "a marathon, not a sprint", Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

In a Facebook post, he urged Singaporeans to keep their guard up as the country lifts some circuit breaker measures today, by continuing to wear masks when outdoors and at work, and avoiding crowds and gatherings, among other things.

"If we all do this, then life can go on more or less normally after the circuit breaker," PM Lee said. "We don't want COVID-19 cases to spike up again, and be forced to tighten up once more."

People can no longer wear face shields in place of face masks from today, 2 June, after the multi-ministry task force tackling the pandemic decided that face shields are not as effective as face masks in reducing the risk of virus transmission.

Only select groups will be allowed to wear face shields instead of face masks, such as those with medical conditions which prevent them from wearing face masks, children below the age of 12, and teachers, as it may not be practical for them to wear masks while teaching.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong appealed to Singaporeans to continue staying at home and avoid going out except for activities like buying essential items and work.

"As there would be fewer restrictions when the circuit breaker comes to an end, the role of individuals will become even more critical. If each of us play our part, act responsibly, we can keep the community transmission low and move together safely towards a new normal," Mr Gan said.

In his post, PM Lee highlighted that while the number of daily cases in the community has come down considerably, COVID-19 is far from defeated.

"Even after a vaccine is found, everything will not simply go back to the way it was before. COVID-19 has exposed how vulnerable our way of life is. But it has also given us the opportunity to prove our mettle, and come back stronger," he said.


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