Singapore’s migrant workers are basically in coronavirus jail

Migrant workers pray in their dormitory during the holy month of Ramadan, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Singapore May 10, 2020. Picture taken…
Migrant workers pray in their dormitory during the holy month of Ramadan, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Singapore May 10, 2020. Picture taken…
Image: Reuters/Edgar Su
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Singapore is signaling to the world that it’s ready to get back to business, even if it means having to get creative with safe pandemic workarounds.

Later this month, the country will move to the final phase of reopening. There will again be larger social group gatherings, more people in malls and shops, and even live music performances and concerts, subject to safety measures.

Meanwhile, Singapore is scheduled to roll out a special travel bubble next month for business travelers, allowing certain visitors to forgo quarantine requirements and conduct in-person work meetings. And in May, Singapore will steal the crown from the Swiss alpine town of Davos to be the host of next May’s World Economic Forum.

But for Singapore’s low-wage migrant workers, who number around 940,200 and make up the bulk of the foreign workforce in the country of 5.7 million, the long-awaited reopening will largely be a sideshow.

Foreign migrant workers have borne the brunt of Singapore’s coronavirus cases, making up over 93% of all infections as of December. Cases among the migrant workers first began to skyrocket in April, when outbreaks spread in cramped worker dormitories where a dozen people can share a toilet, overturning the narrative that the well-run city-state had controlled the coronavirus with its usual efficiency. This prompted authorities to lock down the dormitories for 28 days, before slowly allowing dorm residents to resume working—but with their movements strictly confined to between their workplace and the dormitories.

According to the health ministry’s numbers, Singapore has had fewer than 10 local Covid-19 cases a day since Oct. 1, and many days see zero cases. Deaths have been kept low, too, at 29 out of a total population of roughly 5.7 million.

But data released by the government this week showed that a staggering 47% of all migrant workers who live in dormitories had been infected—an infection rate three times higher than previously reported. The new figure is the result of a combination of two numbers: those who tested positive using normal PCR tests, and those who tested serology-positive, which means the detection of Covid-19 antibodies that indicate a previous infection. The infection rate is expected to grow, as officials are still waiting for the results of the serology tests of 65,000 migrant workers.

These numbers have again raised longstanding questions of how Singapore treats its migrant workers.

“Migrant workers are backbone of Singapore’s economy. However, like other states, it seems that Singapore too is treating its migrant workers unfairly and perhaps in a discriminatory manner,” said Surya Deva, a professor at the City University of Hong Kong and a member of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights. “We should be asking why are such workers forced to live in such dormitories in a country with a very high per capita GDP?

In the meantime, the daily lives of foreign migrant workers in dormitories are still highly restricted. So far, eligible workers—those who have immunity or tested negative—must apply for approval to be allowed to venture outside their dormitories on rest days for three hours at a time to run personal errands. Rule-breakers are swiftly punished: the government has revoked at least 44 work visas of those who breached stay-home requirements.

In the next phase of reopening, migrant workers will get a small reprieve: starting in the first quarter of 2021, they will be allowed “to access the community once a month,” subject to them wearing contact-tracing devices and being tested routinely.

The government, which has placed orders for coronavirus vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, and China’s Sinovac, aims to vaccinate all Singaporeans and long-term residents by the end of 2021. Vulnerable populations, including migrant workers who don’t have coronavirus antibodies, will be prioritized for vaccination, according to second minister for manpower Tan See Leng.

Labor rights activists have for months balked at the government’s restrictive measures for migrant workers. In June, the nonprofit groups Transient Workers Count Too and Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics said that the stringent rules largely confining the workers to dormitories outside of work hours essentially “[made] migrant workers prisoners of employers.”

“Even though the resident community has not been subject to routine testing, they have been free to move within Singapore, subject to number limits, since the lifting of lockdown,” said Debbie Fordyce, president of Transient Workers Count Too. “It makes no sense that workers, whose infection rate is now as low as the resident community, should still be confined as they are.” She added that such treatment of workers by a wealthy country like Singapore “betrays the idea of what economic success should guarantee.”

Though rules are set to be loosened somewhat, migrant workers’ daily lives appear set to remain confined largely to their dormitories for the time being. Fordyce also noted that the government has yet to provide details on which migrant workers will be allowed to access the community under the relaxed rules, and whether time and location restrictions will be put in place.

“As part of ‘building back better’, Singapore should treat its migrant workers on par with white-collar immigrant professionals,” said Deva. “Various independent UN experts have reminded states, and provided them guidance, to ensure that vulnerable or marginalized groups do not suffer disproportionately from the Covid-19 pandemic.”

This story has been updated to include a statement from Transient Workers Count Too.