Singapore has lost 60 lives to the coronavirus in the entire COVID pandemic till now. The country is being idolized for its rapid and effective victory over the coronavirus pandemic. But the price that the island’s migrant workers had to pay for the curb is not highlighted by many.
So, how did Singapore succeed in halting the virus infections? Why were the migrant workers forced into perpetual lockdowns? And what does the future hold for these blue-collar migrant workers?
Coronavirus in Singapore
The first case of coronavirus infection in Singapore was reported in late January of 2020, and just within the next week, over 100 cases. With the help of an advanced tracing program, the authorities were able to crack down on most of the infected patients and the people they got in contact with. The island was praised globally for its pandemic curbing practices, but the crisis in the densely populated migrant worker’s residential buildings was hidden from the international media.
After the circuit-breaker provisions were issued in March, Singapore’s 300,000 migrant population has been pushed into a state-enforced forced lockdown. As residents of the city-state are spread out across 43 ‘mega dormitories‘ – which can house up to 20 workers without air conditioners – they remain vulnerable and precarious.
With no maximum occupancy limit, over 20 migrant workers shared a single dorm room in the pre-covid era. As a result, many migrant worker rights groups, including Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), warned the government about the high chances of mass infections in the dorms, and weeks later, the prediction came true.
Every day, more than a hundred cases of infections were being recorded in the migrant worker dormitories, making them the hotspot of COVID 19 in the country. By mid-April, the government started releasing two daily reports of infection, one of the local communities and one of the dorms. The starking contrasts in the difference of number highlighted the inequality in the country.
The Detiroating Conditions of Migrant Workers in Singapore
Witnessing the spike in cases of COVID amongst migrant laborers, the Singapore government banned nearly all 30,000 workers from mixing with the general population. However, under the “pilot scheme,” a handful of migrant workers were allowed to visit a few places outside their dorm in a fixed amount of time.
Even though Singapore has mature labor laws, the gaps within their enforcement and coverage have been exacerbated by COVID-19.
According to reports, for precautionary measures, thousands of migrant workers have been physically confined to their dormitories in order to prevent the spread of the virus. The fact of the matter is, employers, continue to provide employees with many essential needs such as housing and healthcare, even under optimal scenarios. Currently trapped under these conditions, workers are apprehensive about complaining because of the fear of retaliation.
According to many critics, Singapore’s response to the second spike in migrant worker cases and how cases are recorded are both symptomatic of a fundamental weakness in its management of migrant workers. Accordingly, the Ministry of Health selectively categorized cases according to whether they belonged to either the ‘community’ or dormitories, implying that migrants were not considered a part of the ‘community.
Most of the migrant workers residing in these confined dormitories are native to South Asian countries and are a vital part of the manual labor market of Singapore. For example, Tarif, a migrant worker of Bangladesh living in Singapore, says, “We are working tirelessly for the country,” he says. “We’re making everything, and we’re doing everything for you guys.”
However, living in a dormitory means sharing rooms with 30 or more people and sharing bathrooms, kitchens, and recreational areas with hundreds more. In March 2020, these conditions are what triggered the major outbreak of Covid-19 in dormitories in the first place. After clusters spread extensively in Singapore, the island was shut down for two months.
In this system, labor has been reduced to a commodity and turned into something that can be traded and sold like any other commodity. Often, workers arrive in Singapore with heavy debts owing to recruitment agents and brokers from illicit cash payments they made along the way.
Singapore’s former ambassador to the UN, Tommy Koh, rebuked the government recently for its actions. Mr. Koh said, “This should be a wake-up call for us.”. “To treat our indispensable foreign workers as a first-world country should and not in the disgraceful way in which they are treated now.”
Post-Mortem: A Wake Up Call
Sadly the government officials in Singapore have always made it clear that dormitory residents are separate from everyone else. These men work under different labor laws and do not have the same rights as foreign white-collar workers in the city because they hold different visas. Even the cases were classified into three categories of daily Covid-19 case numbers: “Imported,” “Dormitory Residents,” and “Community.”
The statistics are stark. Approximately 74% of all reported cases are related to migrant workers as of 16 September. For context, just 5% of Singapore’s population is made up of workers. Post the confinement, many media outlets covered suicides and attempted suicides in dormitories last year.
As a result of the dire living conditions workers have to endure while working under a bonded regime, the psychological pressure is heightened. It is further escalating with the forced confinements.