Will a Commission of Inquiry on Migrant Worker Dormitories be Appointed?

Parliamentary Question, 4 May 2020


To ask the Minister of Manpower, if a Commission of Inquiry (COI) will be appointed to investigate the causes of high COVID-19 incidence in foreign worker dormitories, and to share with members: (a) the extent of information gathered by the government prior to the current COVID-19 outbreak on the living conditions of foreign workers in dormitories and non-dormitories; (b) the kinds of support provided to dormitory operators to ensure physical and psychological health in the dormitories; © how specific conditions in the dormitories may be related to the spread of disease; (e) how dormitories housing fewer than 1,000 people, such as Factory-Converted Dormitories (FCDs) and Worksite Dormitories, are regulated; (f) the forms of support provided to work permit holders not living in dormitories but other flats and apartments; and (e) for the COI to recommend strategic policy changes that will improve the living conditions of our foreign workers and our emergency preparedness for the next public health crisis.

[This question was answered as part of the SECOND UPDATE ON WHOLE-OF-GOVERNMENT RESPONSE TO COVID-19 (Ministerial Statements by Minister for Health, Minister for National Development and Minister for Manpower)]

Here’s an extract of the response from Minister for National Development, Mr. Lawrence Wong:

[Several Members — Assoc Prof Walter Theseira and Ms Anthea Ong — had asked for a review and inquiry into the cause of the outbreak in the dormitories. We do want to review and learn. We do want to continue taking feedback and suggestions to improve. That is our basic attitude — to keep improving, learning and doing better.

But we are now still in the heat of battle. When all this is over, we will certainly look back and learn from the experience. We do that each time, after a crisis. For example, our lessons from SARS have helped us a lot in dealing with COVID-19. Likewise, at the right time, we will comprehensively review this pandemic and our responses — not just the outbreak in the dormitories, but the entire crisis from start to finish and our overall response; and we will seek to learn and improve. And I have no doubt that we will find many things where we could have done better and many changes we should make to be better prepared the next time.

But for now, let us stay focused on the urgent priorities ahead of us — we have to bring the outbreak under control on the two fronts, in the community and in the migrant worker dormitories, so that we may then resume activities gradually.]

Part of the question was answered by the Minister of Manpower, Mrs Josephine Teo, in her statement:

[Mr Speaker, some Members want to know MOM’s plans to deal with the housing standards of our migrant workers. A bit of historical background is useful here. During the 1970s to early 1990s, most migrant workers in the construction industry came from Thailand and Malaysia. Most of them rented HDB flats or private residential properties. In the early 1990s, many more construction workers came from China, Bangladesh, Myanmar and India.

To support their housing needs, the Government allocated land for companies to build self-contained dormitories with recreational amenities for their workers. Building and Construction Authority (BCA), HDB and Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) tendered out these sites. One important consideration was, “what would a migrant worker want at the end of the work day, if he cannot be with his family?” Well, it is to be with his friends, cook a meal that he would liked, practise his religious belief.

These dormitories were therefore designed for communal living. To enable workers to live close to where they work and reduce the need to travel, the Government allowed some factories to convert part of their space for dormitory housing, subject to standards being met. Today, there are about 200,000 workers housed in the 43 purpose-built dormitories and about 95,000 housed in 1,200 FCDs. Most of these workers are from the Construction, Marine and Process sectors.

We have 20,000 workers housed in Construction Temporary Quarters (CTQs). Another 85,000 Work Permit and S Pass holders from the Construction sector live in HDB flats, private residential properties and other premises. Landlords must meet requirements and can be investigated for breaches.

The Government also set aside land to build recreation centres for migrant workers, where they can access supermarkets, remittance services and sports fields. Today, there are eight recreation centres located in areas where there are more dormitories.

Over the years, we have taken steps to raise the housing standards of our migrant workers. A key milestone was the enactment of the Foreign Employee Dormitory Act (FEDA) in 2015. FEDA imposes higher standards on dormitories that accommodate 1,000 or more workers. For example, licensed operators were required to provide common recreational facilities like TV rooms, gyms as well as provide access to amenities like mini-marts and WIFI in common areas. They are also required to have health facilities like sickbays or isolation rooms and draw up contingency plans for quarantine arrangements. MOM officers regularly inspect licensed dormitories to ensure compliance.

In fact, the Government reviewed these plans with the dormitory operators at the end of last year and conducted a table top exercise — what do you do if you have an outbreak? But no one was quite thinking of something of the scale of COVID-19. In early February, MOM asked all FEDA-licensed dormitories to each put aside at least 10 quarantine rooms. Those were the rooms that that some of which, Minister Lawrence Wong and I went to inspect. Today, in dormitories with few infected workers, this provision has helped us to quickly isolate the close contacts. Those who are infected, of course, are removed as soon as we can. But the close contacts, you can isolate them and keep them for a while.

Ms Anthea Ong asked about smaller accommodation types. Though not covered by the FEDA, they must still comply with a whole range of regulations. These include BCA’s standards for building structural safety, SCDF’s Fire Safety Code and NEA’s rules on sanitary facilities.

To questions by Mr Png Eng Huat and Assoc Prof Walter Theseira, regulatory agencies all conduct inspections. MOM alone has about 100 dormitory inspectors, full-time, who work under the supervision of the Commissioner for Foreign Employee Dormitories, two Deputy Commissioners and eight Assistant Commissioners. Last year, these officers conducted 1,200 inspections and 3,000 investigations across all housing types. There will be many more when other agencies are included.

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 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. Under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, employers can also be fined up to $10,000 and/or jailed up to 12 months.

Other than enforcement, MOM proactively engages workers, employers and dorm operators. We conduct roadshows at the dormitories to hear from the workers themselves on improvements they would like to see. We survey the workers. About nine in 10 say they are satisfied working in Singapore and would recommend their friends or family to come here.

Still, we educate the workers on what is acceptable accommodation and encourage them to alert MOM if they see something not right. We also involve the community. For example, MOM started a “Colour my Dorm” programme about two years ago. A wall mural at Kian Teck dormitory was painted by youths as a gift to the residents.

Housing standards for our migrant workers have progressed over the years. Mr Speaker, may I have your permission to show some photographs of what the newer dormitories look like. [Slides were shown to hon Members.]

Mr Speaker: Yes, please.

Mrs Josephine Teo: This is one of those that have been built since FEDA was passed into law. This is a slightly older one, but as Members can see, it resembles some of our earlier HDB housing estates. When I visited Westlite Toh Guan, it really felt very much like that. This one has got ensuite facilities, meaning that company takes a room, the room comes with sleeping areas but also their own kitchen, their own toilet facilities. Next one, and this what some of them look like inside. It depends on the size of the room, how many can be allowed to be accommodated. The next one, this is S11 where we have the highest number of infected workers so far. This is what a typical room looks like. I would say the size of the room, if you consider a badminton court, halve it and add maybe about 20% of circulation space, that is what you get.

The next one, one of the dormitories has got a supermarket which the migrant workers can use to buy the food they wish to cook. The next slide shows — this is before safe distancing — what a gym might look like in the bigger dormitories. So, these are the newer ones. We will see how standards can be further raised. But, keep in mind that there are also older dormitories, which perhaps, have not quite reached these standards yet.

What changes will be effective in reducing the transmission risks? Will these changes require different space provisions and technical standards or stronger regulatory levers that Mr Louis Ng has asked about?

Inevitably, in any sort of environment where people gather in groups, there could be significant transmission. For example, the two places where there is substantial transmission are homes and workplaces. Likewise, when you have a large number of people living together, in a communal setting, there is a very high likelihood of transmission.

There was a significant spread for example on the US aircraft carrier, the Theodore Roosevelt, with 950 sailors getting infected within a few weeks. They were 20% of the crew. The virus respects no housing type, no nationality, no occupation. We will therefore need to re-look how everyone interacts with one another at home and at our workplaces. Even the way we socialise will have to change. We will need a focus on public education. So, the same, for our migrant workers.

But as Minister Lawrence Wong said earlier, we are still in the heat of battle. We must be focused on bringing the outbreak under control and work out how we can exit from the circuit breaker and resume normal activities safely. When this is over, we will reflect and thoroughly look into areas where we could have done better, so that we will be better prepared the next time.

In conclusion, Mr Speaker, the last few months have been nothing short of extraordinary for the MOM team. Whether on the economic or health frontlines, it has been a real privilege to work with so many dedicated colleagues to tackle what our Prime Minister describes as “the challenge of a generation”, “the challenge of this generation”.

Our tripartite partners have stepped up, and so have many employers and workers who are going out of their way to support one another. Many people take the time and trouble to send words of encouragement, including a hand-drawn card from a little girl, my resident in Bishan.

The MOM team has also been very moved by the many offers of support for our vulnerable workers, including our migrant workers. The Migrant Workers Centre (MWC) set up the “Care Line” that operates 24/7. The volunteers manning the line are migrant workers themselves. Temasek Cares has mobilised its networks to distribute re-usable masks and care packs to more than 650,000 migrant workers including domestic workers. The corporate community is also stepping forward, such as the contribution of 300,000 sets of toiletries by Procter & Gamble. Among grassroots supports, Mdm Magdalene Poh from Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng sourced for and donated 10,000 bottles of hand sanitizers. Ba Alawi Mosque donated 450 boxes of dates to eight FCDs.

The Interagency Task Force (ITF) is especially thankful to a group of 10 NGOs and community groups. such as the Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach, COVID-19 Migrant Support Coalition — which was introduction from Mr Louis Ng; we are very grateful for that — and also Crisis Relief Alliance. These NGOs and community groups deliver food, masks and care packs to migrant workers outside the 43 purpose-built dormitories who may not be getting enough support from their employers. HealthServe launched a free virtual counselling clinic. To support the migrant workers’ emotional well-being, the sessions are conducted in the vernacular languages by volunteer counsellors, psychiatrists, social workers and interpreters.

Minister of State Zaqy Mohammad now holds weekly engagements with these partners to coordinate efforts while protecting the health and safety of the volunteers.

Mr Speaker, in the past few weeks, there have been many views shared from all quarters. On such occasions, it is refreshing to hear what the migrant workers themselves say. Yes, there were initial problems with food. Yes, it is hard to be cooped up in the rooms. Yes, they miss their families and want to go home.

But listen also to the voices from their hearts, an example of which is captured by the Facebook post of a certain Mr Mirza, who lives in a dormitory. This is what he had to say, “I on behalf of all Bangladeshi migrant workers in Singapore, want to thank the entire Singapore Government, Police, MOM, MOH and every security, every cleaner, every food supplier. They provide us food, daily needs items, mask, sanitizer, free WiFi/SIM card for our time spent in the room. Medical camp in every dormitory. And I am here today promising here in public if I got a chance to do something for Singapore, I will do it at any cost because they are doing their best for me. I will also do my best for them.”

On behalf of all Singapore, I thank Mr Mirza for sharing his heartfelt acknowledgement and promise. His words are not fanciful but they remind us what this is about: doing our best for each other in times of hardship.

We have said right from the beginning that we have a responsibility to our migrant workers. Many of them made personal sacrifices to come to Singapore to work and they have made significant contributions which we appreciate deeply. We will do everything within our means to make sure that they too win the fight against COVID-19 and reunite with their families in time to come. [Applause.]]

I asked a supplementary question as follows:

Ms Anthea Ong (Nominated Member): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I have a question for the Minister for Health and then two questions for the other Ministers.

To Minister Gan, I understand that there is a lot of concern regarding the mental well-being and mental health of the migrant workers. And I also understand that for all the 43 purpose-built dorms (PBDs), there is already an on-site medical team in place. So, is the Minister planning to mandate that within this medical team, that there would be at least a mental health professional in the form of a counsellor or a psychologist with the medical team?

With regard to the factory-converted dormitories, which clearly are more dispersed, teleconsultation is being used to support the physical health needs of the migrant workers. Is the Minister looking to also include psychological services through these teleconsultation support?

The other two questions, the first which I actually highlighted in my Parliamentary Question. I agree with Minister Lawrence Wong that this is clearly a colossal task at hand, so it is not the time to look into a review. Anyway, the crisis is still on-going. But would the Ministers assure Singapore’s migrant workers that a Commission of Inquiry would be appointed when we are out of the eye of the storm and when that would be likely, so that we can be committed to making the structural changes needed and be better prepared for the next epidemic or pandemic. We know that the experts are saying it is not a “if”, it is a “when”. I think this is especially so given that the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act (FEDA) provides very explicitly for quarantine preparation and testing. So, we have learned that that legislative provision may or may not be enough.

The third is to all the Ministers and also, since the Prime Minister is here, is will the Government consider issuing an apology to the migrant workers, given the dismal conditions that they are currently in, because of the conditions of dormitories and all the other conditions, and especially now that they are in complete lockdown for the sake and safety of Singaporeans?

Mr Gan Kim Yong: Allow me to address the issue on mental health and then I will leave the other two Ministers to address the other two questions.

Indeed, mental health is a part of a very important consideration in our healthcare system and particularly on the ground, with regard to dealing with our foreign workers who are in the dormitories.

Our medical teams on the ground are linked back to the various Regional Healthcare Systems. Within these Regional Healthcare Systems, they have support from the entire healthcare system, including mental health as well as other healthcare services. They have a full range of services available to them and they will assess the situation on the ground and decide in what form the mental health support is needed. They will also be dealing with the individual cases, assessing each individual patient. Even those who are non-patients, those who are not infected with COVID-19, could also have mental health issues and we are quite mindful of their mental health needs. Therefore, the medical team on the ground is paying attention to the mental health conditions of the workers in the dormitories as well as those outside the dormitories, where these medical teams are involved in.

Beyond the medical teams, we also have a FAST team, as Minister Josephine Teo highlighted. Within this team, they are also very mindful of paying attention to the well-being of the foreign workers in the dormitories. These include not just their meals, their hygiene and their daily activities, but also their mental well-being. The inter-agency task force looking after these dormitory operations is very mindful of the mental health needs, is paying attention to this and is working with the medical team on the ground with strong support from the various Regional Healthcare Systems to provide mental health services to those workers who may need them.

Mr Lawrence Wong: Mr Speaker, I thank Ms Anthea Ong for her question. I am somewhat puzzled by it because the question almost presupposes that we do not want to do a review despite me saying explicitly in my speech just now that we want to.

I think if you heard my speech just now, I said that we are committed to doing a comprehensive review after the crisis. It is more than just a review on dormitories. It is a review on the whole pandemic from start to finish and our response, and we are committed to learning and improving from this experience. That is what I said, so let there be no doubt that we are not wanting to do this because after the crisis is over, we will do a full review.

The actual nature of it, the form of it, the timing of it — clearly, it is not possible to say it today when we are still fighting a battle for which we do not know when it will end. But after that, we are committed to doing a review, and we will announce it as and when we are ready.

Mrs Josephine Teo: Mr Speaker, Ms Anthea Ong asked about an apology. We interact very closely with the workers themselves on a very regular basis at the dormitories and even outside the dormitories, whenever our FAST teams follow up on their requests and feedback. I think that what they are focused on is how we can help them to handle this present situation — not fall sick and if they fall sick, how to take care of them, how to look after their wages being paid, how to ensure that they can send money home.

These are the things that they have asked of us. I have not come across one single migrant worker himself who has demanded an apology.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng

A full-time human, and part-time everything else.