Shedding light on dorm life and our migrant workers

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Most Singaporeans are probably acutely aware of the current situation that we are facing, with 20,000 migrant workers currently on quarantine in their dorms. We also saw the highest record of 287 cases reported yesterday, with 202 cases linked to previous cases from the S11 dormitory @ Punggol.

Even as the situation unfurls and many Singaporeans are getting increasingly concerned, it bears repeating that we need to send some encouragement to those who have been working tirelessly to contain the situation as best as they can.

We reached out to a friend, who graciously shared her story and experience about what it was like to manage dorms and to understand what our migrant worker community is like.

Our friend is a former dorm staff of S11 and worked there for 2.5 years. She shared that there were typically 10-12 workers sharing a room and employers make a site visit to view the dorm’s facilities before deciding to house the workers at the dorm. These visits can be conducted at random, which means that employers see the actual situation at the dorm.

Interestingly, she told us that the foreign workers are strictly referred to as “residents” by the dorm, and staff who called them “workers” were promptly corrected.

migrant workers S11

Upon entering the dorm, residents will sit through a compulsory introductory video in English, Tamil, Mandarin and Bengali. The video not only introduces the house rules to them but also outlines the need for civic mindedness as they share a communal living space.

Kitchen facilities and spacious dining halls are shared and kept separate from their rooms.  Most residents’ have majority of their meals catered from external vendors. The dorm ensures catered food are properly handled and collected within 2 hours from preparation. Workers sometimes use their weekends to make their rotis and pancakes.

One challenge she cited was communicating to residents the need to keep food away from their rooms. Should they need to store food, they are to use airtight containers and the refrigerators. However, residents often don’t, and this attracts pests to their rooms.

Essentially, purpose-built dorms like S11 have been doing its best to meet the workers’ needs by providing foreign workers a space in Singapore where they will not be shunned. They have a space to enjoy a drink with their friends at the beer garden, catch up on their reading, watch television and even play a game of pool. With their accommodation wholly (and sometimes, daily catered meals) paid for by their employers, the dorms provide the foreign workers with a secure and restful space to call home in Singapore.

migrant workers S11

Regarding the sudden outpouring of negativity and criticisms against the dorms, she said, “The criticism comes off as highly ignorant to me. It also comes from a place of privilege – we read the papers, cry bloody murder and go back to being the racists, insensitive, unwelcoming people many foreign workers are familiar with. Do they really think the various arms of the Government eft these dorms to run themselves as they please? One of my biggest challenges was dealing with strict officers from NEA/BCA who would nit-pick on even the smallest bald patch on a field or the slightest pooling of rainwater, for the fear of dengue breeding.”

She added, “I felt a sense of fulfilment knowing that the residents had the most capable security team – one that patrolled their living areas several times a day, interacting with them and building mutual trust (as a woman, I never had a single fear walking the grounds of the dorm when my job called for it); and also a housekeeping team that washes the grounds multiple times a day.”

“Government agencies would drop by the dorms every other week for spot checks to ensure the dorm was spick and span. The criticism comes from a place of disconnect which unfortunately undermines the persistent hard work of many people in dormitories.”

migrant workers S11

Lastly, she shared that she had never experienced the onslaught of a protest nor had she heard of one while working at the dorms. The security team has a good rapport with many of the residents and this helps in diffusing any tension from escalating.

“The circumstances now inevitably cause much stress for the FWs, as it does for us. They scramble to collect their meals, scramble to have a quick smoke, scramble to keep the virus away from them. But remember, these foreign workers are adults too. They too have a big responsibility towards personal hygiene and the sanitation of their environment.

Indeed, let’s not use this time to create more frustration for those working to improve the situation. We sincerely wish and hope for the swift recovery of all foreign workers who have been infected by Covid-19 and look forward to better days ahead.

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