Covid-19 measures leave Southeast Asia’s migrant workers exposed, lay bare their living conditions

Job loss, crowded quarters and reduced access to healthcare are among the issues foreign workers face. Advocacy groups say the pandemic can only be controlled with an inclusive approach that protects every individual’s rights to life and health.

S11 dorm
As of 6 April 2020, there were 88 confirmed coronavirus cases among foreign workers at this dormitory in Singapore. Operated by S11 Capital Investments, it has a 13,000 capacity. Image: Google Maps

The spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus among Singapore’s migrant workers has thrown the vulnerability of this community into sharp relief as Southeast Asia continues to grapple with the pandemic.

Singapore, together with Malaysia, Thailand and Brunei, are the key destination countries for migrant labour in Southeast Asia.

The city-state’s response to the pandemic in recent months, such as contact-tracing and containment measures, has been praised by many public health experts. But on Sunday (5 April), the government ordered the quarantine of about 20,000 migrant workers living in two dormitories after the Covid-19 clusters grew to 63 confirmed cases in one dormitory, and 28 cases in the other. Workers in the dormitories told national newspaper The Straits Times of cockroach-infested rooms, overflowing toilets and the lack of social distancing measures, sparking public outrage over their living conditions.

“The way Singapore treats its foreign workers is not First World but Third World,” Singapore’s ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh wrote on Facebook. “The dormitories are not clean or sanitary. The dormitories were like a time bomb waiting to explode. They have now exploded with many infected workers. Singapore should treat this as a wake up call to treat our indispensable foreign workers like a First World country should and not in the disgraceful way in which they are treated now.”

Some members of the public wanted to rally together to provide better food for the workers, after seeing photos of the lacklustre meals catered following the quarantine order. Some 200,000 foreign workers live in 43 purpose-built dormitories in Singapore, according to the country’s manpower minister.

The dormitories were like a time bomb waiting to explode. They have now exploded with many infected workers.

Tommy Koh, ambassador-at-large, Singapore

Why are migrants vulnerable?

In the region, migrant workers take on roles in construction, cleaning, manufacturing and other sectors. They help to build roads and homes, clear rubbish, maintain facilities and catch and process seafood. Many of the roles are low-paying and some workers incur significant debts to secure their jobs.

In Thailand and Malaysia, some Covid-19 measures have put migrant workers either at risk, or out of a job. Malaysia’s movement control order impacted livelihoods, including for undocumented workers. Thailand’s lockdown left tens of thousands of migrant workers from neighbouring Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia out of a job and scrambling to leave the country via its land checkpoints. This led to fears of the virus spreading to countries and towns without the medical facilities to cope with an influx of cases.

Migrant rights groups and advocates have called for a more equitable and inclusive response to Covid-19 by countries. The virus does not discriminate, said four United Nations agencies including the International Organisation for Migration in a statement last month.

“This disease can be controlled only if there is an inclusive approach which protects every individual’s rights to life and health. Migrants and refugees are disproportionately vulnerable to exclusion, stigma and discrimination, particularly when undocumented,” they said. “To avert a catastrophe, governments must do all they can to protect the rights and the health of everyone. Protecting the rights and the health of all people will in fact help control the spread of the virus.”

A network of organisations in Asia dealing with migration and health issues echoed the call. Among the factors contributing to migrants’ vulnerability are their cramped and poorly ventilated living quarters, fear of authorities, language barriers and fear of losing their jobs, said Caram Asia, a coalition of 42 member organisations in 20 countries in Asia and the Middle East.

Better accommodation for workers is not just for the sake of workers. If we want protection from disease, we must protect them too.

Singapore non-governmental organisation Transient Workers Count Too

In Singapore, where the spread of Covid-19 in construction sites and dormitories has increased rapidly in the past week, migrant workers advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) said the standard of building codes should be raised. The current standard, which requires a minimum of 4.5 square metres of living space per worker, has “created the epidemic risk”. 

“We believe the floor area per person may need to be at least doubled, if not tripled, and there should be no more than four persons per room,” said TWC2 on its website. Dormitories in Singapore typically house 12 to 20 men in double-decker beds per room.

“Better accommodation for workers is not just for the sake of workers,” it added. “If we want protection from disease, we must protect them too.”

Dormitories not pandemic-ready

Singapore’s manpower ministry said on Monday (6 April) night that cleaning has been stepped up at dormitories to cope with higher volumes of trash and increased usage of washrooms.

It added that workers who had close contact with the confirmed Covid-19 cases have already been separately quarantined. The health ministry has set up medical posts at the dormitories to assess and treat workers who are unwell. These workers would be relocated and housed separately from their usual room mates.

On the most urgent measures needed to minimise the spread of coronavirus within dormitories, infectious diseases expert Hsu Li Yang told Eco-Business that all cases, even individuals without symptoms, should ideally be identified and isolated. Those who have had close contact with the individuals should ideally be quarantined separately as well.

“Otherwise, the dorms and especially the toilet facilities should be thoroughly and regularly cleaned. The workers should quickly be educated on the importance of proper handwashing, and be provided masks for use within the dormitories,” said Associate Professor Hsu of the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

As for longer term public health measures, Hsu said this is something that the country, or at least the manpower ministry, has to discuss.

“Our dormitory standards have—to the best of my knowledge—met all international standards, which however do not take into account rare events such as pandemics. In order to be able to minimise the spread of respiratory (disease) outbreaks, significant changes will need to be made which will greatly affect the cost of labour in Singapore,” he said.

In a Facebook post on Monday evening, Singapore’s manpower minister Josephine Teo said: “Each time we attempt to raise standards, employers yelp – these are added costs which they must eventually pass on… Nevertheless, I hope the Covid-19 episode demonstrates to employers and the wider public that raising standards at worker dormitories is not only the right thing to do, but also in our own interests. We should be willing to accept the higher costs that come with higher standards.”

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