With many businesses floundering due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Singapore is trying to speed up the re-entry into the workforce of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who have been under lockdown for months in their dormitories to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
However, recurring outbreaks in the migrant workers' living quarters could complicate and slow down the process for them to return to work with implications for the wealthy city-state's recovery from its worst-ever economic slump.
Some 94 percent of the nearly 57,000 COVID-19 infections in Singapore have occurred among migrant workers living in overcrowded dormitories.
On April 21, after outbreaks erupted in the dormitories, the government imposed a total lockdown on all of them.
As a result, over 300,000 migrant workers who had been staying in some 1,200 dormitories were stranded inside buildings, causing construction and other major projects that rely heavily on them to grind to a halt.
The number of cases in the dormitories continued to fester after the lockdown, swelling from about 7,000 to over 27,000 cases on May 21 as photos circulating on social media revealed the dark side of life in the dormitories -- overcrowded and with less-than-sanitary living conditions -- which is believed to have made them extremely vulnerable to a large-scale outbreak.
Due to Singapore's heavy dependence on its 1.4 million foreign workers, who account for nearly 40 percent of its total workforce, the lockdown of the dormitories has been a big strain on the economy, which has suffered its worst recession.
About four months later, on Aug. 19, the government declared that all dormitories housing migrant workers have been "cleared" of COVID-19, while it eased some of the tight conditions that had been imposed for reopening the dorms so that more workers can resume work and thus "accelerate" the restart of construction work.
However a series of new outbreaks in recent days have threatened to put a spanner in the plan to get migrant workers to restart work.
Recently, the Manpower Ministry said that a new cluster has erupted at Singapore's largest dormitory, the Sungei Tengah Lodge, while new infections have also flared up in several other dormitories.
Many of the migrant workers lodged in the dormitories come from poorer Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh, China, and other Southeast Asian countries. They toil at tough, menial jobs that are shunned by locals, like construction, cleaning and garbage disposal, worsened by low pay due to the lack of a minimum wage for workers.
The migrant workers are "essentially being treated just like work animals as if they have no emotional, spiritual needs or attachments or social needs," said Debbie Fordyce, president of the nongovernmental organization Transient Workers Count Too.
"It's rough," she told Kyodo News in an interview.
So far, the dormitories have remained largely shuttered. While the majority of workers have received the green access sign on the work pass app on their phone, it is not clear if all who have it have been able to return to work.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently mentioned the complexity of dealing with COVID-19 outbreak in the dormitories in parliament, saying "now that we have cleared the dorms, we are helping the migrant workers resume work especially in the construction industry."
"But this has to be done safely because the risk of cases re-emerging is still there and it's a complicated exercise," he said. "It's better that we make these measures work and get business to operate safely than to suffer a new outbreak and have to shut down again."
Many restrictions imposed at the height of the pandemic earlier this year still remain in place.
The workers are only allowed to leave their dormitories for work purposes or medical appointments and are forbidden to mingle with other residents from other rooms and floors or other blocks in their own dormitory grounds.
Their employers will also have to ensure that they take swab tests for the coronavirus every 14 days, while even the wastewater coming from the dorms is checked for early detection of the virus.
Ray (not his real name to protect his identity), a Bangladeshi construction worker in his mid-20s working in Singapore's worst-hit dormitory, when asked about how he felt being able to return to work, said, "I cannot say that I like it, I will be like a prisoner in my dorm for many days, I can only go out for work and nowhere else."
But at least it is better than being stuck in his room for the past four months.
"We were not allowed to go to work and we can't go out of the gate! I can go to the store (inside the dormitory grounds) only once a week to buy dry food and cigarettes," Ray said. "We worried a lot. We don't have work. We have food problems. We worry about our family who depend on us."
The lockdown of Singapore's dormitories has also strained the migrant workers emotionally and mentally, and the Manpower Ministry has said it is aware of a recent spate of suicides and attempted suicides among them.
In an effort to reduce density, Singapore moved many migrant workers, including those who are recovered, to other temporary housing such as old and vacant public housing, army camps and even windowless cruise ships and hotels to reduce the density in the dormitories.
The government is planning to build more dorms with better living conditions so as to prevent such outbreaks from recurring, requiring the dormitories in future should provide bigger space for each worker and the number of beds per room capped at 10 from the current 12 to 16 beds.
That would be a big challenge due to the shortage of land in Singapore and the fact that many Singaporeans would frown upon having a migrant worker dormitory in their midst.
Eugene Tan, associate law professor at Singapore Management University, while noting that there has been resistance to improve the living conditions of migrant workers due to concerns that it would entail higher costs, said that there is now "no alternative to Singapore reducing the living density in foreign workers' housing."
"The days of huge purpose-built dorms, those that take in thousands of workers, are over," he said.
Sing Tien Foo, a professor who heads the Institute of Real Estate and Urban Studies at the National University of Singapore, sees future dormitories being built higher just like the high-rise flats most Singaporeans live in.
"The intensification of land is a key strategy in Singapore due to land scarcity," Sing said. "With higher rise foreign worker dormitories, the vertical segregation and movements within blocks will have to be more stringently provided and designed, and any infection spread could be contained within the floor level and reduce cross-transmission from floor to floor.