Singapore migrant workers labour under COVID curbs

While most of the city-state’s residents are able to live their lives much as before, migrant workers still find their freedoms restricted.

By Adam Hancock

Singapore – Nestled between towering rows of public housing blocks and a busy road surrounded by trees, the Choa Chu Kang migrant worker compound is almost hidden in plain sight.

A temporary grey wall conceals the compound, which sits in the northwest of Singapore island, making it almost impossible for anyone in the many passing cars to catch a glimpse of what is inside.

Behind the wall sits a cluster of identical blue-roofed dormitories. Barbed wire topped fences are everywhere, surrounding the buildings and even one of the compound’s basketball courts.

The compound is home to some of the more than 300,000 migrant workers who live and work in Singapore, but even as the island eases some coronavirus restrictions to allow the fully vaccinated to travel again, the people here and in the city-state’s many other worker dormitories have no such freedoms.

“It gives us an inferiority complex because before COVID we could go outside, use transport, do everything, we never thought that we were overseas workers,” said 36-year-old Narayan, who comes from Bangladesh and works in construction.

A basketball court for workers is surrounded by barbed wire fencing in their compoound in a northwestern part of Singapore
Workers mostly leave their dorms only for work. If they want to go to the recreation centre, they must apply for an exit pass [Al Jazeera]

“Now we cannot go outside and now we remember that we are overseas workers. It is not normal life,” said Narayan, who requested anonymity for fear of losing his job.

For two years, workers like Narayan have been living under strict COVID-19 controls.

The only time they leave their dormitory compounds is to go to work. If they want to visit the recreation centres set up for them nearby, they must use a phone app to apply for an exit pass, which enables them to leave the dorm.

A maximum of 3,000 fully vaccinated workers are allowed out into the wider community each weekday, with double that number able to visit public places on weekends and holidays. Most of the men work six days a week.

‘Not normal life’

Such a controlled existence is in stark contrast to the lives of other Singapore residents for whom life is finally returning to some sort of normality as the country moves towards “living with COVID”.

Narayan, who has been in Singapore for almost 10 years, is growing increasingly frustrated by the restrictions on his life.

“We [the workers] hope the government can think about us. We are human. We cannot stay in the dormitories for so long. Especially for our mental health, it is not normal life.”

When COVID-19 first arrived in Singapore some two years ago, the government managed to keep control of the situation through a meticulous contact tracing system. The country stayed open, with just relatively minor restrictions imposed.

But once cases began to emerge among migrant workers, the virus tore through their cramped accommodation.

“Due to their in-dormitory living conditions which do not allow much room for proper isolation, dormitory-dwelling migrant workers would be more susceptible to infectious diseases,” Michael Cheah, Executive Director of HealthServe, a non-profit group that provides medical care to workers, told Al Jazeera.

Many of the men work as manual labourers in the kind of physically demanding jobs that Singaporeans prefer not to do.

The government does not provide a breakdown of their nationalities, but most come from South Asia.

“When the pandemic hit in the first year, migrant workers had accounted for almost 90 percent of the confirmed cases in Singapore. This led to dormitory lockdowns and prolonged movement restrictions for the disadvantaged group,” said Cheah.

The first full dormitory lockdowns were imposed in April 2020. Workers were instructed to stay in their dorms and warned against mixing with other workers in common areas.

At the time, the island itself was in what the government called a “circuit-breaker” lockdown, but since then, the divide between the workers inside, and the rest of the community outside, has been impossible to ignore.

Migrant workers are almost entirely cut off from the general public. They are transported around Singapore in the back of lorries and are often only seen at the entrances of building sites or preparing to work on the roads late at night.

“I don’t think there is any difference between a person living in a jail and me. I feel isolated because of the COVID rules and I feel very sad about the difference in the lives between me and the rest of the people,” said 30-year-old labourer Mohammed, who also spoke under condition of anonymity.

The dormitory compound for migrant workers with its blue roofs, perimeter grey wall and barbed wire
The dormitories are hidden away from the rest of Singapore behind a grey perimeter wall. The workers who live there continue to live under heavy restrictions on their movement [Al Jazeera]

Mohammed came to Singapore from Bangladesh eight years ago and has spent the last eight months stuck in his room after suffering an accident at his workplace. The only time he is allowed to leave is to see a doctor.

“We are all humans and all have the same rights and COVID has a risk for everyone equally. I would like to ask the lawmakers why they are treating us differently when we are all the same. We are still humans and we all need freedom.”

“Apart from COVID there are other illnesses that are impacting foreign workers who are unable to seek treatment as they are locked up,” he added.

Concerns for future

The continued separation from society has led to mental health struggles for the men.

Singapore’s Yale-NUS college surveyed just more than 1,000 migrant workers during a period of lockdown in 2020, concluding that the movement restrictions had led to increased levels of depression and stress.

“The social isolation has led to a worrying increase in their mental distress – with more workers experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety over the future, and even suicide risk. This is often on top of workers’ existing challenges related to finances, employment, family and health,” said Cheah.

Al Jazeera contacted Singapore’s Manpower Minister Tan See Leng, who declined an interview request.

In a written statement, the Ministry of Manpower said: “We have kept health outcomes among migrant workers good with very low numbers of mortalities amongst migrant workers staying in dormitories in mid-2020, even before vaccination was available in Singapore, and none since vaccination was rolled out.”

The workers dormitories overlooking a wide concrete walkway seen through a wire fencthe
One worker told Al Jazeera: “I don’t think there is any difference between a person living in a jail and me” [Al Jazeera]

In response to queries about mental health support for the workers, the ministry said it had “implemented a comprehensive support system to meet migrant workers’ mental wellbeing needs” and offered volunteer counselling services in-person as well as through hotlines.

When pressed on the continued restrictions on workers’ lives and when they might be able to enjoy the freedoms they had before the pandemic, the ministry acknowledged it had been a “trying period” for the men.

“We will continue to make adjustments to meet the recreation and social needs of migrant workers while safeguarding their health,” the ministry said.

Before the pandemic struck, the workers took the opportunity of their day off to meet up with their friends in Little India, a central part of Singapore known for its South Asian restaurants and shops.

It was here, in 2013, that a worker was run over by a bus, triggering unrest that shocked the country.

It was Singapore’s first riot for more than 40 years and led to questions over the treatment of migrant workers.

With more than 98 percent of the workers living in dorms now fully vaccinated, some say there is no longer any “rational justification” for the authorities to persist with such tough restrictions.

“It raises the possibility that the government sees COVID-19 as an opportunity to institutionalise far stricter controls over migrant labour in Singapore, well beyond what the disease justifies,” said Alex Au, vice president of Transient Workers Count Too, a non-profit that advocates for equitable treatment for migrant workers.

“Our concern is that it will go well beyond the day when the pandemic becomes history.”


The more than 300,000 migrant workers in SIngapore have helped build some of the city-state’s most iconic buildings [File: Edgar Su/Reuters]

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