COVID-19 Op-ed

Dormitory Debate: Have migrant workers in Singapore slipped between the cracks?

Tashryn Mohd ShahrinMA International RelationsUniversity of Pécs

The recent debate about Singapore’s amoral treatment of foreign workers residing and working in the country has been renewed  as dormitory outbreaks are on the rise.On April 20, the Ministry of Health reportedly confirmed 1,426 new cases of Covid-19 infection – the sharpest increase in numbers since the outbreak began in January. The following day, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the extension of Singapore’s Circuit Breaker period – “to break the chain of transmission and stem the spread of the deadly disease – rather than the restrictions on its people” – till June 1st after another 1,111 new cases were reported. Among these new cases in the last few days, the majority continue to be linked to foreign worker dormitories (Straits Times, 2020).Singapore is officially the worst hit country in the region with the highest number of confirmed cases in Southeast Asia.Foreign workers and their realities in Singapore are barely visible to the public eye, being out of mind and out of sight while being unintrusive of peoples’ daily consciousness. Before Covid-19, their voices were almost unheard of and now because of the surge in infections in their living spaces have they begun to be more apparent. The question we should ask ourselves is, why did it take a pandemic to shed light on the unethical treatment of foreign workers? The exclusion of marginalised communities is grounded in a culture of fear among labour migrants. By extension, labour rights is limited for these migrants who do not have a minimum wage, pay high agent fees and are reluctant to take the risk of reporting sick lest they get sacked etc. There are a variety of issues stacked against them which refrains them from speaking up nor participate in any discourse due to the fear of repercussions. Covid-19 has added more reasons to fuel this fear as Singapore tries to tackle the second wave of the virus that largely stems from their dormitories.“With up to 20 people in each room, it will be impossible to contain the spread as it was difficult to even maintain a 1m distance between people in rooms” (TODAY Singapore, 2020)“We have been isolated, and that’s fine. It’s necessary. But we are still at risk. Four of our friends are infected. But no one has briefed us on what to do” (BBC, 2020)Increasing numbers of migrant workers are reaching out for assistance from charities and NGOs as they seek redress for the problems they are facing during this time. They share their problems of increased workload, salary issues, abrupt termination, doubt about their rest days compensation and denial of access to healthcare and medical aid among others which are not very different from their circumstances before the pandemic (HOME & CNA, 2020). Evidently, they are living in fear not just because of the infection but also their livelihoods!The bare minimum that reaches the public eye about the abuses migrant workers suffer contradicts their very real fears of being discriminated against, losing their jobs or deported for speaking up. How much more would we know if these migrant workers were able and supported, to speak freely? The government has a moral duty to ensure protection for these workers who provide feedback about their abuses.Thousands of cases of unpaid salaries, poor living conditions, poor food quality, work injury claims, unjust dismissals, illegal setbacks and many other types of exploitation that rights-based groups like the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) and Transient Workers Count Too (TCW2) see on a yearly basis illustrates the extent of the problem, whether in general or during this crisis. Their helplines are overwhelmed with migrant workers during these harsh times which shows that a significant number of the 590,000 foreign domestic workers and construction workers are clearly falling through the gaps (MOM, 2020). Despite their best outreach efforts, the most difficult issue is that some NGOs are not listed as essential services in the midst of the Circuit Breaker period and are therefore prohibited from doing their work properly even with the resources they have.RecommendationsAdvocacy for foreign workers and the kindness and generosity of Singaporeans might save those who are falling through the cracks. However, the success of civil society in Singapore depends upon the willingness of the government to yield to their concerns. The government certainly has the power to implement labour protection policies and move the foreign workers out of their crowded dormitories – there is no need to wait for a public outcry to react on the matter.Migrant workers need more access to democratic spaces to speak up for themselves. Instead of making cosmetic changes like handing out free masks or hand sanitizers (MOM, 2020), give them more leeway to speak on their own behalf. Ask them directly about their issues and act on them. Their insights are far more profound than academics or policymakers. It is not difficult to enable more avenues for them to communicate their concerns while at the same time learning the means to communicate with them ourselves.Despite the hostile, tight spaces of advocacy and civil society, Singaporean citizens can keep asking questions that directly address systems of exploitations. We have to keep supporting activism especially when we know what is at stake. In the long run, hopefully, change can happen in salami slices.The government needs to start protecting the labour rights and other human rights of migrant workers in much more resolute and uncompromising ways. Otherwise, the well-being issues faced by migrant workers will be felt long after the Covid-19 crisis is over.References:n.d. Advisories on COVID-19. Singapore Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Retrieved from: Foreign workforce numbers. Singapore Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Retrieved from: Governments’ Three-Pronged Strategy to stop the spread: Plugging the Gaps? Home for Migration Economics (HOME), April 18. Retrieved from:, C. (2020) Coronavirus: Singapore’s migrant workers ‘living in fear’. BBC News, 22 April. Retrieved from:, R., Iau, J. & Yong, C. (2020) 1369 of the 1426 coronavirus cases confirmed in S’pore are foreign workers living in dormitories. The Straits Times, April 20. Retrieved from:, N. & Elangovan, N. (2020) Covid-19: Some foreign workers feel ‘safer’ in dorms, others lament lack of enforcement, cramped spaces. TODAY Singapore, 17 April. Retrieved from:, R. (2020) NGOs launch initiatives to help migrant workers amid COVID-19 outbreak. Channel News Asia (CAN), 10 April. Retrieved from: 

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