How did Migrant Workers Come to Live in Dormitories?

migrant worker dormitory

In the past, migrant workers didn’t live in large-scale dormitories (they didn’t exist yet!), so what’s the history of our nation that led them to live in dormitories?

Why do people care?

Over the last month, the number of Covid-19 cases in migrant worker dormitories has been increasing.

migrant worker dormitory
Graphic: SCMP

This has fueled questions why the government did not promptly recognise large scale dormitories would be hotbeds of Covid-19 transmission. Some have called for the government to apologise to migrant workers (although they are given free food, wifi, sim cards, health check-ups and entertainment).

According to reporter Ho Sheo Be’s recent article, ‘the Government concedes that, like many people, it is keen to understand how Covid-19 has spread among the migrant workers, particularly the five cases in the first migrant worker cluster who all lived in different locations, with only two residing in dormitories. It had, therefore, not made timely improvements to the migrant workers’ living conditions nor arrangements to relocate them to other facilities.’

How did migrant workers come to live in dormitories?

Migrant workers have been living in large scale dormitories for more than two decades.

migrant worker dormitory
Rainbow-coloured PPT 1B dormitory at Punggol. It has a cinema, gym, minimart, barber, mobile phone store, canteen, ATM and exercise areas inside (Photo: Jules of Singapore)

In fact, the existence of these dormitories has caused controversy before, when a group of Serangoon Garden residents launched a petition (signed by over 1,000 households) against the conversion of an old school campus into a migrant worker dormitory in 2008. There were ‘concerns about the safety of the elderly and the young’, and property devaluation that resulted in the Nimby (not-in-my-backyard) mindset that forced the migrant workers out of residential estates.

But before the 43 large-scale dormitories were built, from 1970s to early 1990s, migrant workers from Malaysia and Thailand mostly lived in rented Housing Board flats or private residential units, working in the construction sector.

More migrant workers from non-traditional sources such as China, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, came to Singapore to work in construction and other sectors. They also resided in HDB estates, but had different living habits from locals.

Responding to calls to build dormitories far away from HDB estates

In the 1990s, MPs suggested to the government to build dormitories far away from HDB estates. So then Acting Minister for National Development Lim Hng Kiang announced in 1994 that the Government would invite tenders to build migrant worker accommodation at suitable locations.

These locations were in industrial estates which were far away from HDB estates, yet close enough for the workers to patronise facilities, such as shops and coffee shops.

The first large-scale migrant worker dormitory was completed in October 1996. Then in 2004, it became a requisite for employers when applying for work permits to house their migrant workers in dormitories or other government-approved accommodation.

Improved dormitory conditions and busting errant dormitories

Over the years, dormitory conditions have improved, such as in-house entertainment and minimarts in the large dormitories.

The photos below, taken from a 2016 article, show some of the amenities in large dormitories.

migrant worker dormitory
Residents getting haircuts at a barber shop staffed by former Jean Yip hairstylists. (Photo: ST)
migrant worker dormitory
Mr Najmul Hossain, 26, a construction worker from Bangladesh, working out in the gym. (Photo: ST)
migrant worker dormitory
The commercial cinema inside a dormitory has two 200-seater halls, which regularly screen Tamil and Hindi blockbusters. (Photo: ST)

What some members of the public may not know, are that there are three types of dormitories in Singapore:

  • 43 Large scale purpose-built dormitories like the ones above (each housing between 3,000 and 25,000 workers, for a total of 200,000 workers)
  • 12,000 Factory converted dormitories (typically close to workers’ workplaces, for a total of 95,000 workers)
  • construction temporary quarters or temporary living quarters

The government, with the police and groups like Migrant Workers’ Centre have been going around busting errant dormitory operators.

Why are people suddenly become concerned for migrant workers when they’ve been working and living here for decades?

Sheo Be points out, ‘If not for Covid-19, most of us, except those in civil society organisations, would still be treating migrant workers as “invisible people”. Hardly anyone would take an interest in their daily lives, with some even having discriminatory attitudes towards this migrant community who toil daily at construction sites, maintain our roads in the dead of night, and still have to clear our rubbish on Sundays.’

She also writes in her article that ‘Many will also say that there is not much point in seeking accountability at present, when the focus should be on stabilising the outbreak. Just as Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said in Parliament, migrant workers residing in different dormitories work at the same worksites and do their shopping at the same places on their rest days. 

Their chances of cross-infection are no different from that of family members living in the same household, followers of the same religious group or even people working in the same location.

What is critical is to ensure that when these migrant workers return to work, those residing in different dormitories do not work at the same worksites and all should practise safe distancing when working. Furthermore, we should look at how to provide timely medical and humanitarian care for them when needed.’

Are the Singaporeans who complain, actually practising what they preach?

If we care for migrant workers, how willing are we to integrate them into our society?

Sheo Be finishes her article with her pointed observations, ‘In Singapore, we do not lack examples of migrant workers who have successfully integrated into our society. Many years ago, I interviewed a safety training officer from Bangladesh who became a permanent resident of Singapore. But I am afraid that such uplifting stories have become rarer with the repeated tightening of our foreign labour policy.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to face issues concerning our foreign labour policy and management squarely and resolve them properly. With this experience, if we continue to have a Nimby mindset and treat migrant workers as invisible, then we really owe them a proper apology.’

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What do you want to tell others? Find me at jules <at> workersofsingapore (dot) com