The thoughts below were contributed by an anonymous Singaporean who has been helping migrant workers in Singapore, in both an NGO and now a bank. Photos have been inserted by the editor for context.
I don’t often write long posts nor express strong opinions, but having had the privilege to serve Migrant Workers (MWs) in both an NGO and now a bank, wanted to put down my personal opinion in the wake of the heightened attention on the MWs residing in dormitories.
There are 1.4 million MWs in Singapore, of which 981,000 are Work Permit Holders, 725,200 excluding FDWs.
Of these, more than 200,000 working in the ‘Hot and Dirty’ sectors stay in dormitories. These are categorised into Purpose-built Dormitories, Factory-converted Dormitories and Ancillary dormitories.
With the gazetting of the first dormitories as isolation areas on 5 April, critics have been quick to judge and blame the government and dorm operators on what they regard as overcrowded and squalid conditions.
While there may be a small number of dorms which justify the criticism, the majority of dorms have provided facilities and amenities over and above what is prescribed for in the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act (FEDA). In fact, when organising multiple dorm visits in my previous role, some of the feedback students gave were that they would rather have their sec 3 camps in the dormitories or that the dormitories were better than the hostels they were staying in.
As for cleanliness of the rooms, should we not also look at the responsibility of the residents themselves?
If you and I are staying in a rented flat and we make a mess of our room, is the landlord to be blamed for not cleaning up after us? When dormitories impose fines as a deterrent measure, they get flagged for taking money from workers who are already not earning much. But who is held responsible when authorities do checks and see cockroaches in the rooms?
Looking at it from another angle, are we as Singaporeans partly to blame for the conditions they are in?
We expect everything to be cheap, and that in turn leads to employers either paying MWs low wages or having to find the cheapest accommodation. Dorm operators in turn need to provide low rates, even as they try to make workers feel at home away from home.
Also, are we willing to have MWs staying within our midst?
Many students I have spoken to would know the examples I used to cite. When a dorm was to be built at Serangoon Gardens, it led to a big hooha with wide-ranging repercussions. When a Nursing Home was to be built in Bishan, residents welcomed the move but did not want the nursing home to be built at their void deck. And when a crematorium was to be built at Sengkang, a petition was called. Simply put, a Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMB) syndrome.
Even as workers in essential services are moved to alternative sites, including vacant estates at Redhill, Jurong and Tanjong Pagar, there have been comments from residents expressing concern about them being housed so near residents.
This, while we are complaining about them not able to have safe distancing because they are housed 12 to 16 in a room, and the inter-agency task force doing their best.
While their welfare is looked into and there is now a ‘Stabilise-Replicate-Sustain’ strategy, another aspect comes to play – that of their wages and ability to continue sending money home to their loved ones.
While there has been progress in having Key Employment Terms and Mandatory Itemised Payslips, the last piece in the ‘Holy Trinity’ – electronic salary crediting – has been advocated and discussed for awhile. There had been progress, but COVID-19 has shown that it may not have been fast enough. This again has been due to factors such as employers and the MWs themselves preferring cash.
Now in this situation, there is emphasis on MWs having bank accounts and for employers to pay salaries via bank accounts. There is also emphasis on having MWs and FDWs conduct remittances digitally.
In my current role, whenever my team has gone out to corporates, dormitories and ecosystem partners to engage MWs on going digital and Cashless, there has always been suspicion and doubt cast on us.
The common refrain is that we are only in it to profit from the MWs and do not bring anything to the table.
This, despite there being no fees for digital Remittances, and MWs approaching us whenever we have a booth, even without having to give out freebies.
Whenever we pushed for items like onboarding to digibank, or encouraging MWs to use Cashless payment means including NETSPay, PayNow, Paylah, SimplyGo etc, we have had to push our way through and justify why MWs should change behaviour.
When the dust on COVID-19 settles, I am quietly confident that these issues will be addressed and looked into with renewed vigour. However, right now, let’s put faith in the inter-agency task force and the relevant stakeholders to do what’s right to address the concerns of the MWs.
Featured photo: Today
Editing is my work.