Should migrant workers’ dormitory operators and employers be legally responsible for the spike in COVID-19 cases in Singapore?

Should migrant workers’ dormitory operators and employers be legally responsible for the spike in COVID-19 cases in Singapore?

In better times, migrant workers have always been the frontline workers of Singapore for decades, mostly remaining unacknowledged and under-appreciated. It’s truly unfortunate that it is only during this COVID-19 period and the spiking of COVID-19 cases among them that they are placed in the “limelight”.

While our government and the relevant agencies upped their efforts and measures to contain the rapid spread of Coronavirus among these migrant workers, most of us as Singaporeans are genuinely worried and aggrieved over the spiking of COVID-19 in the migrant workers’ dormitories. An outcry of spontaneous compassion continues as even more voluntary welfare groups and individuals started to extend their assistance to these dormitories.

However, it’s hard to ignore the undertone of resentment fueling this outcry at the same time.

Regardless of the many differences in opinion on the spiking of COVID-19 cases in our migrant workers’ dormitories, it’s safe to say that most of us agree that we have “dropped the ball” on our migrant workers” – it could have been prevented. While there is a huge outcry of sentiments against our government and relevant agencies on their belated measures for migrant workers here in Singapore, I would humbly beg to differ.

I believe that there are 4 key parts we need to examine in order for a more holistic examination of the current issue at hand, namely:

1) Government/Inter-nation Policies and agreements;
2)Government Agencies;
3)Employers and Dormitory Owners ; and
4)Employees/Foreign workers.

We need to recognise that these migrant labour policies are consensually signed between two countries for mutual benefits of both countries. In turn, these policies are enforced by the relevant government agencies which license and authorise private operators and employers who are able to abide by these policies (and with the operational capabilities) to hire these foreign workers and house them appropriately. So if we clear ourselves of our emotions, and see objectively the responsibilities from the government, to government agencies to employers, and private operators to dormitory residents, it might help us to set things into perspective.

Let me elaborate on each of the 4 key parts. First, as mentioned, these migrant worker policies are mutually signed between two countries. And before anyone puts his/her signature on any contracts, everyone’s focus is on the “F” word – fair. If a policy or a contract is not fair, no one will put their signature on it. After all, how is it possible that Singapore can intimidate our neighbouring countries into signing biased policies that favour only u?. It’s not wrong to say that Singapore and the other countries which have foreign labour policies with us, consensually agreed to enter these policies for the mutual benefits of both countries.

While most can argue that there are simply too many foreign workers in Singapore, we also need to acknowledge that we have a greater need for them to assist Singapore in our dynamic and rapid growth.

Case in point – There are always new scheduled BTO (Build-To-Order – source) HDB flats throughout the year in different parts of Singapore. We have about 58 hospitals (public and private collectively – source) throughout Singapore and more than 12,000 F&B (food and beverage – source) outlets and hundreds of thousands of families which need additional support from FDWs (Foreign Domestic Worker – source). If we were to highlight only these four main sectors which these foreign workers are deployed, it’s not hard to understand why we need to have foreign labor policies with other countries.

While it’s true that the topic we should be focusing on is the issue of COVID-19 spiking in dormitories, not all of us can deny the fact that often these two factors are simply “rojaked” into one simple sentence – “It’s spiking because there are too many foreign workers in Singapore”, thus it’s important that we again seperate these two entangled points of argument, in order for us to see from a clearer and unprejudiced perspective.

Moving on to the relevant government agencies’ roles in the dormitories’ outbreak of Coronavirus. What most of us would most probably unanimously agree, is that the RELEVANT government agencies are in charge of enforcing the terms of these policies on private establishments and companies which employ, and also in this case, provide lodging for the foreign workers.

The relevant government agencies would have set in place stringent regulations and obligations to would-be-employers (including dormitory operators in this case), to make sure that these employers (& operators) have the means and capability to fulfill these regulations before even awarding them with the permits and licenses to employ and/or operate any dormitory. Just like any one of us registering a new business entity in Singapore, we too, are required by law to fulfill all the regulations from MOM (Ministry of Manpower), ACRA (Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority), etc.

We can all agree that these guidelines are there to ensure a minimum standard in the living conditions for the foreigners. One needs to be ready to undertake all the responsibilities and fulfillment of these regulations to be able to successfully apply for the permit to operate these dormitories.

While we are not sure how often are the scheduled or regular inspections from these government agencies conducted on the premises of these dormitories, it is nevertheless understood that by undersigning a permit to operate these dormitories, it is a pledge between private operators and the government agencies to make sure that the interest, security, benefit and welfare of the dormitory residents are and must always be safeguarded by these operators and employers – these are mandatory.

So if we cast our argument further, then the recent government interventions are only because of what was done poorly or not put in place by the private owners and operators.

Thus, it might not be right to say that the relevant government agencies should be totally responsible for the spiking of COVID-19 in dormitories. Granted, one can still argue that the government agencies should have had better foresight and preempted this dreadful scenario ahead of the private operators and owners of these dormitories. Despite the efforts and measures these governing agencies are extensively putting into place now, all they have done is to vulnerably placed themselves as the scapegoat for public crucification.

Now, as responsible private business owners, we are required to fulfill the terms and conditions of MOM, ACRA, WSHC (Workplace Safety and Health Council), FSD (Fire Safety Department – SCDF) and etc.

In short, when anyone registers a new private commercial entity in ACRA, they already undertook the responsibilities and regulations from all these government agencies, whether one thoroughly read through all these terms from all the different agencies or not. MOM won’t be calling up any employer for an interview unless a formal complaint has been filed against them. Similarly, no employer would want FSD to be doing premise inspection in their commercial premises every other week.

Just like any other ACRA registered establishment or company, dormitory owners and operators are commercial businesses providing services and lodging for foreign workers. The dormitory lodgings provided are not free but borne either by the foreign workers or the employers (about SGD $250 per month – source). Thus similar to any legit commercialised transaction, there is the need to balance monetary gain and quality service. Ensuring that these dormitories are fit to stay in, is not only the operators and owners’ responsibility, it is also the employers’ responsibility (source). Even without the SCDF fire department and other relevant agencies knocking on all dormitories’ doors unannounced and doing random spot checks on the premises, it has always been mandatory for dormitory operators and employers to make sure that these foreign workers are living in approved environment as per the guidelines defined by relevant governing agencies.

While information on regulations involving these dormitories are clearly listed on all the relevant government agencies’ websites, we can’t say for certain that all of these dormitories are operating stringently per these regulations. This might have presented a grey zone which might also be the cause of the spiking of COVID-19 in these dormitories. Without proper and transparent documentation of their practices, dormitory operators and employers of these foreign workers place themselves in the firing line of this dreadful situation in the dormitories.

Last but not the least, due-responsibility and due-diligence from employees (in this case, dormitory residents) are required in the course of their employment (residency in this case) ,to ensure that the “F” word (fairness), can be put in place to complete this full contractual cycle.

It’s been identified that the spiking of COVID-19 cases are especially alarming in regards to particularly two groups of workers (Bangladeshi and Indian – source) which make up the majority of the COVID-19 cases in the foreign workers group, with the cases from the other nationalities of foreign workers remaining low and containable. To be fair, we need to look at why specifically it’s harder to contain the spiking of COVID-19 within these two particular groups. Without any intention to discriminate, it’s arguable that their deeply-rooted cultural habits also played a major part as the hidden reservoir for COVID-19 cases. These actions or behaviour may not be an issue in normal times, but is certainly a cause for concern during this period, whereby human contact has been identified as one of the main source of transmission of the virus.

With each passing day of our “Circuit Breaker” and the continued rapid spiking of COVID-19 in these dormitories, it’s hard to argue that there isn’t any public resentment of our government. It may seem a general principle that any government of any other country should be held responsible for such oversights during a crisis, but if we start to clarify the roles and responsibilities from government to government agencies to business owners to dormitory operators and to employees, we might be able to have a more equal platform for inquiry.

For all the different parties involved in this, the top priority remains the same – to deal with the COVID-19 situation in dormitories first, without letting emotions affect and hinder us further.

However, it is also equally important that we must publicly address these issues when we have finally defeated the COVID-19 virus. While most of us are not really prepared for this level of pandemic in this modern time, we need to acknowledge that certain standards and general protocols should have been proactively engaged all the time, even without the virus. Thus, it’s important that we know where and what went wrong, and who should be standing in front of an open inquiry should (or if) we eventually conduct one, because, ultimately:

To Err is human
To Forgive is divine
But we should not forget, so that we will not find ourselves caught up in the same situation ever again.

Written by : Mike Koh
Edited by : Huang Yushan / Ling Weiming
Published on : 29/04/2020
Image : Source /

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *