Bangladesh travel

Domestic workers and migrants left behind by Singapore’s roadways


When Singapore announced the start of non-quarantine travel to some countries, including the US, UK, France and Canada, the Singapore Airlines Ltd. website crashed and ticket prices skyrocketed.

Expats rushed to book trips to the house in time for Christmas, while locked-in locals jumped at the chance to finally leave the small island. With domestic virus restrictions extended recently after a wave of infections, the well-heeled are increasingly desperate to take flight.

More than half a million domestic and migrant workers are left behind by the exodus, many of whom have not seen their families for years. Thousands of people are living in cramped dormitories – some, according to recent allegations, in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

Theoretically, these workers are free to leave. But while the majority of them have been vaccinated, Singapore is restricting arrivals from several of the countries where they live, including Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. For housekeepers in the Philippines and Indonesia, the cost of the return, which may include staying in a quarantine facility, could be more than double their monthly salary. The financial burden and administrative constraints depending on the employer make travel prohibitive.

The dire status of COVID-19 and low vaccination rates in some of these countries should not be ruled out, and a quarantine version is necessary and cautious. Yet there is little hope of a sustainable economic recovery that will effectively retain up to 15% of the workforce who repairs roads, builds metro stations, manages shipyards, looks after the elderly and ensure children are fed – some for as little as S $ 28. ($ 21) per day. Making the return trip more feasible must be part of Singapore’s plans to reopen.

For decades, Singapore’s migrants have lived in rudimentary dormitories, old factories and other converted industrial spaces, or in temporary accommodation on construction sites where they work. Employers pay for their accommodation. Before the pandemic, up to 30 people shared a room. These neighborhoods tend to be located on the outskirts of the city, away from the architectural marvels of glass and steel that dominate the main business and shopping districts.

Equally vast is the psychological chasm between Singapore and its migrant workforce. Uniform social housing blocks called HDB have a strict quota for foreign tenants. “One of the main reasons for this policy appears to be the distaste of HDB residents for living near workers,” Bloomberg News reported previously. The pandemic has only accentuated this gap. When the government started recording the number of daily cases, it struggled to distinguish the number of ‘community’ cases from those in dormitories, where the virus spread rapidly due to tight bodies and sanitation. poor.

Singapore has taken steps to address these shortcomings and reduce the risk of another major outbreak. In September, he announced the results of a year-long review that sets a cap of 12 people for each room and a limit of six people for shared bathrooms. The standards, which apply to new housing, will require more isolation beds to accommodate illnesses. Old facilities will move to these guidelines “gradually,” the Straits Times said, according to an official at the Department of Manpower.

But the problems persisted. Recently, workers at the Westlite Jalan Tukang facility – a so-called fast-building dormitory developed to meet the new specifications – expressed frustration with the living conditions, alleging that those who tested positive for COVID-19 have seen each other. refuse appropriate treatment and isolation. Photos posted online show people sleeping in hallways and on the floor outside, apparently to avoid infecting their roommates. A worker told the Straits Times that “these men had been sick for about seven or eight days…. Their fever had gotten really high and we had to make some noise before anything was done. “

When the workers clashed with the management, loudly but peacefully, riot police were dispatched in armored vehicles. Workers also complained that they were given food that was rotten or infested with worms.

Sembcorp Marine Ltd., an offshore rig builder that employs about 1,400 dormitory residents, apologized for the untimely medical attention and “poor hygiene in food preparation,” according to a statement. Westlite Accomodation, which operates the site, also acknowledged the delay, while the Department of Manpower said it was aware of the issues cited and was working to ensure sick people received proper medical care. .

Workers desperate for paychecks have little influence in such situations. With some threatening to quit and return home, this is unlikely to happen in sufficient numbers to disrupt business and send a message. This is all the more reason for the government to act first.

Creating a fast-track route for migrant and domestic workers would begin to ease this burden. This should involve simpler and more affordable quarantine requirements, the ability to request leave independently of one’s employer, and guarantees of employment or pay for existing pass holders upon their return. The significant portion of the local population who want tighter COVID-19 restrictions will complain, but it should be noted that Sri Lanka’s vaccination rate, at 63.4%, is about the same as that in the United States. United, which lobbied Singapore to open up travel in previous months. the announcement. The privilege that comes with critical defense and trade ties could become the most powerful vaccine passport to date.

Rachel Rosenthal is a writer at Bloomberg Opinion.

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