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Is the Government to be blamed for the foreign workers’ living conditions?

By May 11, 2020Current

TL;DR – We have been heard. For now, it’s better to let the good people focus on the more important work without being demoralised by criticism.

Is COVID 19 actually two diseases? And does Dr Finian Tan have the answer to unlock the Catch-22?

I am not going to mince my words, the explosion of COVID cases in the foreign worker dormitories in Singapore is embarrassing. Why? Because to a typical “kiasu” and “kiasi” Singaporean like me, this apparent loss of face when we were hailed as the international “gold standard” not too long ago is uncomfortable to say the least.

Reading various reports on ever increasing number of cases amongst foreign workers made me anxious and angry. I was anxious from seeing 3-digit numbers of new cases every day, wondering where it all went wrong and how such a situation could occur. I was angry reading about how foreign workers were made to live in poor and unsanitary conditions in the dormitories.

Finding someone else to blame

Don’t get me wrong. I am no bleeding heart humanitarian. I readily admit that I didn’t care for foreign workers’ issues before this. Having grown up in a HDB flat like many other Singaporeans, my encounters with foreign workers were mostly cursory, seeing them as town council cleaners or construction workers mainly. I don’t have a strong emotional attachment to them and therefore I honestly think that this sense of embarrassment, anxiousness and anger I feel is more a reflection of myself than of me for them. But you know, who would admit such self-centered emotions, it would be much easier to find someone else to blame. Right?

And so the prideful me found it easier to blame the conditions of the foreign workers’ dormitories on the neglect and failure of the dormitory operators and MOM (i.e. the government). It is their problem and they didn’t take care of it! Or is it?

Call it a natural human tendency of selective bias. I guess when we believe in an argument we want, we tend to see only the things that bolster our argument and choose to ignore those that don’t fit into our world view.

A rude awakening

I was given a rather rude shake-up on this when I chatted with a friend who had decided to volunteer for the operations to manage one of the locked down dormitories. It was his day-off and he was exhausted from the work. I asked if he was disappointed about the state of affairs and like me, felt angry with the authorities. On the contrary, he was full of pride about how the Government had handled the crisis very swiftly.

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My friend recounted how they had set up 50 FAST teams and medical posts, in less than a week, across the dormitories to make sure the foreign workers were looked after. He told me stories of their struggles with language barriers, catering food for tens of thousands at a go and providing for the foreign workers’ other needs. He said that the going was tough but what kept him most alive in this was the cooperation and appreciation by both the dormitory operators and foreign workers themselves. Everyone understood the gravity of the situation and how dangerous this infection could be, and most were cooperative to the restrictions imposed. More importantly, he said that if the Government had not decisively provided resources to ensure the workers were paid, guarantee of free healthcare and medical treatment, 3 meals catered for, we would certainly have seen riots break out among the workers. And that would have been disastrous.

Each forward assurance support team, or “Fast” team, comprises officers from the Singapore Armed Forces, police and Ministry of Manpower. Via

 

I had read about how Prime Minister Lee had promised these workers that their well-being and livelihoods would be taken care of. I had also read about the many large-scale care facilities being set up to house or treat the workers – the floatel, the cruise ship, conversion of EXPO and numerous other venues around the island. There’s the decanting exercise I read about to move out and re-house healthy workers in essential services so that they can be kept safe and continue to work in areas important to keep Singapore going. Not to mention, I was surprised to read that we have one of the highest testing rates in the world, having conducted 2500 tests per 100,000 persons, and even more for foreign workers at 1 in 15.  All in all, we are looking after more than 300,000 foreign workers in the dormitories and another 100,000 in the factory-converted dormitories, over and above the healthcare and financial resources dedicated to our locals. I guess I didn’t see the connections of it all, and the scale and intensity of the operations and effort. Honestly, I think not many Government would have done this for the foreign workers in their home country. Well at least from the news reports of similar predicaments of workers in Qatar and Malaysia, we have done the right thing by them.

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So back to my indignation about the living conditions in the dormitories. Is the Government to blame? I wonder how such large collective living conditions could be improved? Perhaps stricter enforcement of the dormitory operators are needed?

I took a closer look at the numbers. Re-housing 300,000 foreign workers into more diffused accommodation types is equivalent to building two Ang Mo Kio-sized towns to house them. In land-scarce Singapore, where do we find the space and what do Singaporeans need to give up in order to achieve this? If not for large dormitories in secluded areas on the island, where else?

Would heartlanders be so gracious as to allow for better foreign worker dormitories to be built near their own homes? The NIMBY attitudes among residents during the Serangoon Gardens dormitory issue in 2008 is not unique to them and probably lying dormant until they get one in their own neighbourhood.  So whilst we ask for foreign workers to have better living conditions on the one hand, we deny them the space to have similar conditions by living next to us on the other.

Cut down the number of foreign workers substantially maybe? Come on.

Some commentators have argued that we ought to reduce the number of foreign workers. To be fair, the Government has been doing so, but critics say it is not enough. But I wonder if a drastic cut is the solution.

For many Singaporeans, this would mean an immediate impact on our cost and standards of living if we are to reduce the number of foreign workers – bus intervals might take longer, our cooked food prices in the coffeeshops may go up, S&CC charges may rise and new homeowners would wait longer for their BTO flats or condos to be built. Given that Singaporeans say that our country is an expensive place to live in, how else would Government keep cost of living low for its people without having to give increasingly more subsidies or rebates and raise taxes to generate resources to pay for it? I’m not sure the long-term consequences are something Singaporeans can stomach. Personally, I am not a big fan of becoming like the high welfare but high tax countries in Europe.

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Furthermore, even if people are prepared to accept higher prices, we just do not have enough Singaporeans to form the base of blue-collared jobs that is needed to sustain the upper part of the pyramid of PMET jobs Singaporeans aspire to. In fact, currently over 60% of Singaporean workers are PMETs and this proportion will only continue to rise given our population’s high educational standards. I pondered over this future scenario, if we don’t have foreign workers as the builders, cleaners and basic service staff working in our future Changi Airport Terminal 5, Tuas Megaport or Greater Southern Waterfont, we can forget about the 100,000 new and higher paid jobs that will be created for Singaporeans by 2025.

So let’s be real. There is no quick and easy solution to solving the issue of foreign workers’ living conditions without contextualizing its links to the larger socio-economic impact on Singaporeans. There are complex trade-offs and consequences. So I think it is wrong to reduce it to a simple one-dimensional problem.

I take heart that Minister of Manpower, Josephine Teo, had said that “there is no question that standards at foreign worker dormitories should be raised.” The Ministerial Task Force had also given its reassurance that it will comprehensively review the COVID-19 pandemic and its overall response to it not just in terms of the outbreak in the dormitories, but the entire crisis from start to finish.

Yes, whilst foreign worker living conditions may have improved from the past, to many it is still less than ideal today. But I have realized that being quick to blame the Government for the problem is the easy way out and ignores the larger context and socio-economic ecosystem of how we all play a part in what we demand of the same Government in terms of standards of living and aspirations for good jobs.

We have been heard. Now let them get on with the task.

For now, I think it’s better to let the good people focus without being demoralized by criticism. I think the Government have heard us and said they will conduct a thorough review. And hand to heart, I think they are not doing a bad job for now.

 

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