Plugging the gaps on foreign worker dorms

By Justin Chua, Wong Shiying and Sean Lim


National Development Minister Lawrence Wong and Manpower Minister Josephine Teo visiting a dormitory in Tuas on Feb 6. PHOTO: FACEBOOK/LAWRENCE WONG


The most intriguing part of Manpower Minister Josephine Teo’s speech to Parliament on Monday (May 4) regarding foreign worker accommodation was this:


“Every year, MOM alone takes an average of 1,200 employers to task for unacceptable accommodation under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, and about 20 operators for breach of FEDA (Foreign Employee Dormitories Act) licence conditions. Where lapses are found, dormitory operators must rectify them immediately. For offences under FEDA, dormitory operators can be fined up to $50,000 and/or jailed up to 12 months.’’


It’s a pity that she didn’t say more because the numbers look extremely large, especially for dorm operators. Nor did she specify if the numbers were going up or down, whether there were repeat offenders and what were the usual breaches.


Although there were scattered news reports over the years, the figures cannot be found. Nor was it easy to piece together the regulations since dormitory operators, as well as employers who house their workers in what is known as factory-converted dorms and temporary premises at construction sites have to abide by many different rules set by different agencies.


REGULATIONS AND ENFORCEMENT


Class Notes found that there are 28 distinct dorm operators who manage 43 large dormitories housing more than 1,000 foreign workers on sites tendered out by the Housing Development Board (HDB), the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) and state-owned property developer JTC Corporation.


That means about 66 per cent of operators breached the rules every year. The list of dorm operators and the dormitories they run, based on listings on MOM’s and the operating companies’ websites, can be found here.


The largest dormitory is Sungei Tengah Lodge with 25,000 beds. It is co-owned by Hi-Tek Construction and Right Construction and managed by TG25. There are other big players such as TS Management Services which houses 16,800 workers in Tuas View Dormitory and Centurion with 28,000 beds across its five Westlite dormitories.


At least four dormitories — Blue Star Dormitory, Toh Guan Dormitory and Jurong Penjuru Dormitory 1 and 2 — were built before 2006. The rest were mostly built in the 2010s.


In all, these 43 dormitories house 200,000 foreign workers.


Operators are regulated by the Foreign Employees Dormitories Act (FEDA), under which licenses are issued to those who meet required standards. These standards can be pieced together based on requirements published by a host of different agencies, such as the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), National Environment Agency (NEA), Public Utilities Board and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).


Overseeing the issuing of these licenses is a Commissioner appointed by the Manpower Minister, whose identity we were unable to ascertain. Notices in the Government Gazette show the deputy commissioner, Ms Shireen Banu, and the assistant commissioner, Mr Loh Meng Siang, were appointed in 2017.


SCDF requirements mainly have to do with fire safety measures, ventilation and ease of access. They mandate that each dormitory bedroom not exceed 120 square metres and an occupant load of 40 persons, based on an accessible floor area of 3 square metres per person.


NEA’s regulations deal with sanitary and refuse disposal matters. They specify, for example, that “every 15 male workers or fewer’’ should have access to “one water closet, one wash hand basin, one urinal, one bench with a hanger’’.


URA has a more extensive set of requirements dealing with the use of space for dormitories, including those converted from factories in industrial areas. URA requires each worker to be provided with a minimum of 4.5 square metres of gross floor area of living space. “This is to ensure that sufficient basic living facilities such as living quarters, kitchen, dining, and toilet areas are provided,’’ the requirements read.


It also specifies the minimum space to be set aside for indoor and outdoor activities, depending on the number of dorm occupants.

Screengrab of URA's guidelines for recreational amenities in dormitories.


Although Mrs Teo said about 20 operators were taken to task every year for breaching conditions under FEDA, Class Notes could only find two instances when a dormitory operator made the news.


Last year, MOM inspectors found that four purpose-built dormitories managed by Labourtel — Jurong Penjuru Dormitory 1 and 2, Blue Stars Dormitory, and The Leo — were poorly maintained with faulty shower taps, corroded railings and cockroaches found in the rooms. Some of the shower points did not have partitions and fans were not provided.


Labourtel and its director Parvis Ahamed Mohamed Ghouse were convicted on July 4 last year under FEDA for unacceptable living conditions. Another of its officers, Shaik Mohamed Mohamed Abdul Jaleel, pleaded guilty on March 5 this year.


The company, which faced seven charges, can be fined for up to $50,000 for each charge. Parvis was convicted of four charges while Shaik pleaded guilty to one charge. For each charge, the men can be jailed for up to a year and fined up to $50,000. Sentencing, which was due on April 14, appears to have been postponed because of circuit breaker measures imposed by the State Courts.


In 2017, Yeo's Brother Management had its license for Ama Keng Hostel revoked under FEDA as it failed to provide satisfactory living conditions for their residents. MOM inspections found signs of cockroach infestation and breeding of mosquitoes and flies, as well as fire hazards in the workers’ quarters. Toilet conditions were not sanitary either.


Before FEDA came into effect in 2016, the only legislation concerning the living conditions of foreign workers was the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA).


Introduced in 1990, it primarily outlines the guidelines employers must uphold on providing wages, leaves, overtime and rest for their workers. According to the work pass regulations, employers "shall ensure that the foreign employee has acceptable accommodation. Such accommodation must be consistent with any written law, directive, guideline, circular or other similar instrument issued by any competent authority."


In 2016, KT Mesdom, the first dormitory operator to be convicted and prosecuted in court, was fined $300,000 for aiding three companies to house workers in overcrowded conditions at Blue Stars Dormitory. KT Mesdom was the previous operator of the dormitory before Labourtel Pte Ltd. The company was charged under EFMA as investigations began in 2015, before FEDA was enacted.


FEDA is meant for larger dormitories with more than 1,000 workers while EFMA governs smaller factory-converted spaces and temporary quarters at construction sites. A company can be fined up to $10,000 and its executives jailed up to 12 months per offence.


In May last year, construction company Keong Hong Construction was fined $352,500 for housing its foreign workers in overcrowded living conditions. The temporary accommodation at Sembawang Crescent exceeded its approved occupancy load of 182 workers with 207 occupants. The workers were placed in 31 makeshift rooms constructed from zinc sheets and plywood which did not meet fire safety regulations.


The cramped living space meant ventilation was poor, food could not be stored properly and sleeping areas were simultaneously used for drying laundry. Shower facilities were also vastly inadequate, with more than 200 workers sharing one communal bath.


In 2017, Kay Lim Construction & Trading Pte Ltd was fined $156,000 over 30 charges for housing workers in unhygienic conditions and failing to update the addresses of workers from four other companies housed in their construction-site temporary quarters between 2014 and 2015.


INTERNATIONAL REGULATIONS


When a surge in Covid-19 infections among migrant workers living in dormitories was being reported last month, questions were raised about the living conditions of migrant workers in other societies.


Singapore’s dormitory standards were compared against Taiwan and Malaysia partly because their regulations can be found online — unlike Japan, Hong Kong or South Korea — and because they too have a significant foreign worker community.


Singapore has about 300,000 migrant labourers living in dorms. Malaysia has about 1.55 million migrant labourers working in manufacturing, construction, plantation and agriculture, while Taiwan has about 447,000 blue-collared migrant workers.

Regulations of dormitory standards in Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan. SOURCES: SCDF, NEA, URA, Department of Labour of Peninsular Malaysia, Workforce Development Agency


Dorm regulations across the three countries are fairly similar — small living spaces ranging from 3.2 to 4.5 square metres, 15 people to a toilet or urinal and the provision of basic amenities like a kitchen.


However, the virus outbreak has had a very different impact on foreign workers in these countries.


In Malaysia, 986 foreign workers tested positive after 22,339 workers were screened as of May 6. Four workers have died, 525 recovered and currently 457 under intensive care. There has not been any large virus outbreaks among migrant workers but labour rights organisations fear the possibility of a fresh wave of infections among the migrant worker community.


In Taiwan, there has only been one confirmed case of an Indonesian undocumented worker. Despite the packed conditions in some dorms, with up to 30 people in a room, there hasn’t been an outbreak among the workers since there has been no widespread community transmissions in Taiwan.


The guidelines from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a United Nations agency, on migrant worker’s housing puts things into perspective. For rooms with more than four people, it recommends at least 3.6 square metres of floor area per person. It also recommends that workers have separate beds instead of bunk beds and access to recreation rooms.


A joint note by the International Finance Group and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development was also specific in their recommendations. Using a density metric, each resident is entitled to 10 to 12.5 cubic metres — the equivalent of 4 to 5.5 square metres — of living space. They also recommended beds to be one metre apart, rooms be kept to eight workers and to avoid double-decker bunk beds for fire safety and hygiene reasons.


MOM’S MOVES


In her speech, Mrs Teo said that in early February this year, MOM asked all FEDA-licensed dormitories to each put aside at least 10 quarantine rooms.


“Today, in dormitories with few infected workers, this provision has helped us to quickly isolate the close contacts. Those who were infected were removed and isolated,’’ she said.


Out of the 43 FEDA-licensed migrant worker dormitories, 38 have been linked to existing clusters, as of Wednesday. MOM has also gazetted 25 dorms as isolation centres.


All but three of the FEDA-licensed dormitories have more than 400 confirmed cases. S11 Dormitory @ Punggol at 2 Seletar North Link has the most with 2,477 cases, Tuas View Dormitory has 996 cases and Sungei Tengah Lodge has 951 cases.


Cassia @ Penjuru, with 89 cases, has the least cases among the dormitories gazetted as isolation centres.


Healthcare facilities have been set up outside hospitals to cope with the growing number of confirmed cases among foreign workers, which hit 18, 365 on Wednesday, including those living outside dorms. Changi Exhibition Centre and the halls at Singapore Expo have been transformed into community care facilities with 10,000 bed spaces to house those with mild symptoms and lower risk factors. Likewise, SAF camps have freed up 2,000 beds to isolate patients who have recovered.


Minister Teo said the situation within the 43 large dorms is largely stable now but “the picture among the thousand-plus FCDs (factory converted dormitories) and CTQs (construction temporary quarters) is much more mixed and takes up much bandwidth’’.


So far 19 clusters have been linked to the FCDs and CTQs, which are mostly situated in the Tuas, Woodlands and Sungei Kadut industrial areas. Infections in these smaller dorms total 1,964 workers, accounting for 10 per cent of all infected foreign workers living in dormitories.


New housing arrangements are in the pipeline for these workers in the next year or two, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said last Monday.


In an interview with CNBC on Wednesday, he said living standards have “steadily improved over the years.


“Despite the best effort at putting in place precautions and safeguards, reminding the dormitories’ operators that these ... nonessential communal activities have to be ceased at the start of the outbreak, I think the lesson we’ve learned from this experience is that with this pandemic — an unprecedented pandemic — the safeguards were not sufficient," he said.


“The design of dormitories have to change,” he added.






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