COMMENT: The half-million people left behind by Singapore’s Travel Lanes

·5 min read
Migrant workers wearing protective masks at a construction site in Singapore, Tuesday, 31 August, 2021. Daily local cases continue to rise as virus clusters linked to public bus interchanges emerge. Singapore announced an 80% vaccination rate last week. (Photo by Joseph Nair/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Thrilled expats and locals in Singapore can travel again. The migrant and domestic workers who keep it running risk a different reality. (PHOTO: Joseph Nair/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

By Rachel Rosenthal

(Bloomberg Opinion) — When Singapore announced the start of quarantine-free travel to certain countries including the U.S., U.K., France and Canada, Singapore Airlines Ltd.’s website crashed and ticket prices shot through the roof. Expatriates scrambled to book trips home in time for Christmas, while cooped-up locals jumped at the chance to finally get off the tiny island. With domestic virus curbs extended this week after a surge of infections, the well-heeled are ever-more desperate to take flight.

Left behind by this exodus are more than half a million domestic and migrant workers, many of whom haven’t seen their families in years. Thousands live in cramped dormitories – some, according to recent claims, in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

Theoretically, such labourers are free to leave. But while the majority have been vaccinated, Singapore restricts arrivals from several of the countries they call home, including Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. For maids from the Philippines and Indonesia, the cost of reentry, which may include staying at a quarantine facility, could come in at more than double their monthly salaries. The financial burden and employer-dependent administrative hoops make travel prohibitive.

The dire status of Covid and low vaccination rates in some of these countries shouldn’t be dismissed, and a version of quarantine is necessary and prudent. Yet there’s little hope of a sustainable economic recovery that effectively holds captive as much as 15% of the workforce that repairs roads, builds subway stations, mans shipyards, cares for the elderly and ensures children are fed — some for as little as S$28 a day. Making travel home more feasible must be part of Singapore’s reopening plans.

For decades, Singapore’s migrants have lived in rudimentary dorms, old factories and other converted industrial spaces, or in temporary housing on the construction sites where they work. Employers pay for their accommodations. Before the pandemic, as many as 30 people shared a room. These quarters tend to be on the city’s outskirts, far from the architectural wonderland of glass and steel that dominates the main business and shopping districts.

The psychological chasm between Singapore and its migrant workforce is just as vast. The uniform public housing blocks called HDBs have a strict quota for foreign tenants. “A main reason for this policy appears to be HDB residents’ distaste for living near the workers,” Bloomberg News reported previously. The pandemic has only sharpened this divide. When the government started recording daily case numbers, it took pains to distinguish the number of “community” cases from those in the dorms, where the virus spread rapidly because of tightly packed bodies and subpar sanitation.

Singapore has taken steps to address these deficiencies and lower the risk of another large outbreak. In September, it announced results of a yearlong review that puts a 12-person cap on each room and six-person limit on shared bathrooms. The standards, which apply to new housing, will require more isolation beds to accommodate for illness. Old facilities will transition to these guidelines “in a phased manner,” the Straits Times reported a Ministry of Manpower official as saying.

But problems have persisted. Last week, workers at the Westlite Jalan Tukang facility – a so-called quick-build dorm developed to meet the new specifications – voiced frustration over living conditions, alleging that those who tested positive for Covid were denied proper treatment and isolation. Photos posted online show people sleeping in corridors and on the ground outside, reportedly to avoid infecting their roommates. One labourer told the Straits Times that “these men had been sick for about seven or eight days… Their fever had gotten very high, and we had to make noise about it before anything was done.”

When the workers confronted management, with raised voices but otherwise peaceably, riot police in armoured vehicles were sent in. The labourers had also complained that they were given food that was rotten or infested with worms.

Sembcorp Marine Ltd., a builder of offshore rigs that employs about 1,400 of the dorm’s residents, issued an apology for the untimely medical care and “lack of hygiene in the food preparation,” according to a statement. Westlite Accommodation, which manages the site, also acknowledged the delay, while the Ministry of Manpower said it was aware of the issues cited and working to ensure the sick got appropriate medical care.

Workers desperate for paychecks have little leverage in such situations. While some are threatening to quit and go home, it’s unlikely to happen in large enough numbers to disrupt business and send a message. That’s all the more reason for the government to act first.

Creating an expedited travel lane for migrant and domestic workers would start to ease this burden. It should involve more straightforward and affordable quarantine requirements, the ability to apply to leave independently of one’s employer, and job or pay guarantees for existing pass holders upon return. The sizable portion of the local population that wants stricter Covid restrictions will grumble, but it’s worth noting that Sri Lanka’s vaccination rate, at 63.4%, is about the same as the U.S., which lobbied Singapore to open up travel in the months before the announcement. The privilege that comes with critical trade and defence ties may become the most powerful vaccine passport yet.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Rachel Rosenthal is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. Previously, she was a markets reporter and editor at the Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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