Covid-19 Exposed the Rot at the Core of Singapore’s Migrant Labor System

Covid-19 Exposed the Rot at the Core of Singapore’s Migrant Labor System
Photo Credit: Reuters/TPG Images
What you need to know

Singapore's migrant workers have borne the brunt of Covid-19. The real culprit is the government's single-minded focus on economic growth before people.

Singapore was initially upheld as the "gold standard" in managing the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the past month, however, cases in migrant worker dormitories have escalated in the high-hundreds on a daily basis.

Once an occasion for the government to bask in praise of its competence, Covid-19 has exposed the fissures buried deep in the underbelly of Singaporean society.

Cramped dormitories, failed testing regime 

Commended for its initial thorough testing — all pneumonia patients were screened for Covid-19 as early as January — Singapore has recently seen its cases escalate to more than 28,000. The city is in the top 30 countries with the most confirmed cases. 

The main site of the explosion of cases is the dormitories that house migrant workers. Singapore claims that these cases were “hidden,” but government neglect is the real culprit. Manpower Minister Josephine Teo admitted that close to half of the 43 dormitories had breached licensing conditions each year. Local migrant groups have also warned the government of the possibility of an unbridled spread since the first cases were detected in the dormitories in early February. 

The government instead warned employers against sending “healthy” workers for testing in late February, or risk having their “work pass privileges suspended,” even though Singapore had by then already seen its first infection among the migrant workers. 

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Photo Credit: Reuters/TPG Images
View of a dormitory room for migrant workers who have recovered from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), amid the outbreak in Singapore, May 15,  2020.

By the end of March, the first clusters started forming in the dormitories, and today, 25 dormitories in Singapore are still under lockdown, meaning that tenants are isolated from others in the city. There are a total of 323,000 migrant workers living in Singapore’s dormitories, of whom 200,000 live in mega-dormitories. In some dorms over a dozen people share one room with bunk beds, only ventilated by small fans; hundreds share the limited bathrooms. 

It is clear the cramped living conditions contributed to the rapid transmission. Even as the government is trying to spread out workers, officials admit the number of confirmed cases is likely to increase to 40,000 by the end of May. While the government claimed in early May that it has developed the capacity to conduct more than 8,000 tests per day and aims to increase its testing capacity, the government is still only conducting about 3,000 tests a day on the migrant workers in the dormitories as of mid-May. 

Government-released figures show an even more dire picture. Netizens calculated an infection rate of 92.3 percent among those workers who have been tested (note that there are discrepancies in the confirmed cases of the figures released by the government on different days). 

Exacerbating the situation is how healthy workers living in the same room as workers who are Covid-positive might go without a test unless they present symptoms. Some workers and dorm managers are reportedly confused about the testing procedure and results and are unable to receive treatment. Activist Kokila Annamalai has revealed how “healthy” migrant workers held in the dormitories have difficulty gaining access to their regular medication. 

Assisted by the government, dorm operators profit 

The Singapore government announced that it would fund the additional operating costs of the dormitories during the lockdown. Some of these dorms have been exposed by netizens to be run by wealthygrassroots” advisors affiliated with the ruling party. Dorm operator profits have been hefty

Not only that, the Singapore government also collects foreign worker levies from companies who hire construction workers. Levies could be as high as twice the wage of a migrant worker. Using the minimum levy the government can collect, researcher Stephanie Chok calculated that the government would be earning at least S$72 million (US$ 50.8 million) in a year. There is however no information as to how the levies are being used even though they are intended for workers. The squalid living conditions of the dorms show either that levies are either insufficient or misused.

Despite this, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong continued to threaten that, “all of us have to be prepared to pay this higher cost,” even as the government is reaping millions. 

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Photo Credit: Reuters/TPG Images
A worker looks out of his dormitory as he serves his quarantine amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Singapore, May 4, 2020. 
Economic growth fixation is the real culprit

The problem is ultimately rooted in the structural exploitation of Singapore’s migrant workers. In Singapore, around 3.2 million residents live in the country’s public housing. In comparison, the 323,000 migrant workers living in the dormitories comprise about 10 percent of this population. 

It is this neglect and modern-day slavery that we enact on the migrant workers that has resulted in the unrestrained spread of Covid-19 among the dormitories.

The Singapore government’s addiction to cheap labor in construction to prop up the GDP (and the ministerial salaries pegged to the GDP) comes from a fixation on economic growth. The foundation of this growth is built on migrant labor paid subpar wages. 

However, when Manpower Minister Josephine Teo was asked if she would apologize to the migrant workers for the state they are in, she said, "I have not come across one single migrant worker himself that has demanded an apology." 

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Photo Credit: Reuters/TPG Images
A worker looks out of his dormitory as he serves his quarantine amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Singapore, May 4, 2020. 

Class inequality — though perhaps the word “caste inequality” is more appropriate — has bred a social consciousness that turns a blind eye to the suffering of the vulnerable members of our society. Some Singaporean residents have unfortunately taken to blaming the migrant workers, the very people who built their swanking new towers. 

Nearly everything that could have gone wrong with the Singapore government's management of the dormitories, did. What is left is patchy communication on the government initiatives and a lack of clarity as to the number of tests done, the procedures workers are able to receive testing, and the treatment and support they are able to receive. 

For once, Covid-19 presents an opportunity to assess the real-time ability of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) in responding to a crisis. 

What can at least be said about Singapore that a sense of crisis has resonated, compelling the government to respond, though ineptly. The horrid conditions of migrant workers have never been more visible internationally and in Singapore. 


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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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