CARE White Paper Research News – Coronavirus: Singapore migrant worker dormitories still hot topic as Covid-19 cases rise

A migrant worker looks out from a window of his Singapore dormitory. Photo: AFP

Published: 14 April 2020 by Kok Xinghui and Bhavan Jaipragas,
South China Morning Post

  • The island nation’s authorities have corrected course after appearing to be caught off guard by the logistical scale of quarantining nearly 200,000 workers
  • But their living conditions, care and the quality of food provided have remained controversial points of discussion

Singapore’s army of migrant workers remains in sharp focus amid expectations that a surge in Covid-19 infections in the tightly packed mega-dormitories that house them will continue in the short term, even as locally transmitted cases among the rest of the island state’s population show signs of easing.

The health ministry on Monday night announced 386 new confirmed infections – the highest daily surge so far. 280 of the new cases were foreign workers. With the latest increase, some 40 per cent of the country’s current total of 2,918 cases are work permit holders employed in low-wage jobs shunned by locals, such as construction.

Authorities have rapidly corrected course after appearing early last week to be caught off guard by the scale of logistical work required for them to quarantine the nearly 200,000 workers who live in 43 dormitories across the country.

Even so, accounts from activists as well as a prominent migrant rights researcher who conducted online interviews with dozens of the quarantined workers suggest improvements are needed to help them get through the isolation period.

Singapore migrant workers under quarantine as coronavirus hits dormitories

All dormitory residents are currently barred from leaving their accommodation, while the residents of eight of these dormitories cannot leave their rooms amid tighter restrictions owing to community transmission in their buildings.

In the latest move, Singaporean officials are gearing up to move some healthy workers from their dormitories to floating accommodation on vessels typically used by employees of the country’s marine and offshore sector.

The government has also announced plans to house some of these healthy workers in empty public housing flats, military camps, and multistorey car parks and void decks in public housing estates currently under construction. Military personnel, including doctors and logistics staff, have been deployed to the dormitories.

A view of the S11@Punggol foreign worker dormitory in Singapore. Photo: EPA

National development minister Lawrence Wong, the co-chair of the country’s Covid-19 ministerial task force, in a Facebook post on Sunday said community transmission in the country as a whole was moderating. Singapore is under a month-long partial lockdown described by the government as a “circuit breaker”.

But “the number of work-permit and dormitory-related cases has increased sharply, and this is likely to continue going up, especially as we undertake more aggressive testing of workers at the dormitories”, he wrote.

“As I had shared earlier, we have a comprehensive strategy to take care of our foreign workers and contain the virus in the dorms. This will take some time, but we are going all out to tackle this.”

Jeremy Lim, an adjunct associate professor with the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said the latest data showed the contrasting situations of local residents and foreign workers.

“The government was focused on the Singapore population and left the worker measures to the dormitory operators and employers. This, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, was insufficient; the [dormitory] operators and employers couldn’t cope and hence the challenges faced now,” said Lim, who also chairs the medical services committee at HealthServe, a non-profit organisation offering health services to migrant workers.

The living conditions of workers in the dormitories – a subject of heated debate last week – remains a national talking point. The Ministry of Manpower came under fire last week after reports of some of the dormitories’ filthy conditions, which were exacerbated by the quarantine as all residents were indoors throughout the day.

Some workers – many of whom cook their own meals despite their long hours – also complained about the quality of food catered for them.

Since then, cleaning has been considerably stepped up, according to media releases by the ministry. It also released video interviews of the workers saying conditions were better, while photos circulating online of the workers’ meals also showed a marked improvement.

This Week in Asia understands there are special plans to give the workers a festive cheer on Tuesday to mark the Tamil New Year and the Bengali New Year.

A migrant worker is attended to by personnel from Singapore’s Academy of Medicine. Photo: Reuters

Still, the lockdown conditions are causing a strain on the workers, going by a study by Mohan Dutta, a New Zealand-based professor who has conducted extensive research on Singapore’s migrant workers.

In a white paper published on Monday, Dutta released findings from 45 hours of digital ethnography – or interviews – conducted with the workers online. The 43 interviews in a mixture of Bengali and English were conducted between April 7 and Monday.

Dutta wrote that “multiple participants refer to feelings of depression when discussing their living arrangements”.

Participants also disputed the reported improvement in the quality of food. Some said the price of the catered food was now S$140 (US$99) per month – S$20 (US$14) more than usual – and described the poor fare as “cruelty”.

“Moreover, our advisory group members note that in spite of the media attention to food and the stories about improvement in the quality of food, they are continuing to be served poor quality food,” the University of Massey professor wrote.

Activist Kokila Annamalai, writing on Facebook on Monday, said “despite some improvements, we’re a long way off from doing enough for migrant workers as Covid-19 cases mount in the community”. Based on conversations with workers and rights groups, she flagged several concerns including fears about mass lay-offs; non-payment or arrears of wages; and difficulty in obtaining medical attention for non-coronavirus ailments.

Local migrant worker advocacy group TWC2 has compared the workers’ situation to the Diamond Princess cruise ship, on which 3,711 passengers and crew were quarantined and more than 700 people eventually infected with Covid-19.

“When social distancing in dorm rooms with 12-20 men per room is effectively impossible, should one worker in a room be infected – and he could be asymptomatic – the repeated contact he has with his roommates because of confinement would heighten the risk to his roommates. The infection rate in the dorm could increase dramatically,” the group said.

Luke Tan, the case work manager for the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, said workers who lived in “converted industrial dorms or unlicensed dorms” might be falling under the radar when it came to testing for Covid-19, the availability of protective gear as well as food and salary payments.

“We know sooner or later the authorities will reach them but would it be too late?” he said.

The Ministry of Manpower in a statement on Monday said it had inspected over 600 factory-converted dormitories over the past three days, with minor lapses found in 57 locations.

Elsewhere, an op-ed piece in local Chinese-language daily Lianhe Zaobao about the workers’ current circumstances drew sharp reactions, with the writer questioning whether workers cleaned kitchens and toilets themselves or if they relied on cleaners.

“If personal hygiene habits don’t improve, sanitation standards will not change no matter where they go,” wrote the writer, adding that the government had already done a good job.

Police officers enter the gate of a dormitory compound for foreign workers placed under quarantine to battle the spread of Covid-19. Photo: AFP

Reacting to a Facebook post translating the article, several people voiced their disappointment at that viewpoint, decrying it as “classist”. TWC2 had earlier said that structural constraints such as design of space, density, and the work hours of the workers played a part in the dormitories’ cleanliness. “It’s no use pontificating from a middle-class distance,” the non-profit said.

The embassies of countries with large numbers of workers in Singapore are offering assistance to their respective citizens. A large proportion of the city state’s 981,000 work permit holders are drawn from China, Bangladesh and India.The Chinese embassy in a statement on Saturday said it was “putting the health of Chinese workers living in the foreign worker dormitories as a priority”, adding that it was delivering essential supplies including some 20,000 masks to 1,800 of its nationals.

The High Commissioner of Bangladesh to Singapore, Md. Mustafizur Rahman, in a video address to his country’s nationals working in Singapore, offered reassurances about salary payment, medical benefits and the provision of meals during the quarantine period.

“You should obey all the health measures instructed by the Singapore government, it will be good for you and all of us,” he said.

Additional reporting by Dewey Sim

Article Link: Coronavirus: Singapore migrant worker dormitories still hot topic as Covid-19 cases rise

CARE White Paper Issue 6: Infrastructures of housing and food for low-wage migrant workers in Singapore

Courtesy Julio Etchart as part of CARE’s “Respect Migrant Rights” campaign in Singapore

The high incidence of COVID-19 cases in dormitories housing low-wage migrant workers in Singapore makes visible the structural challenges of poor housing and food. Building on CARE’s ongoing work with low-wage migrant workers in Singapore, this white paper presents imaginaries for healthy housing and food voiced by low-wage migrant workers.

CARE White Paper Issue 4: March 2020

COVID-19 Wage Subsidy Package

by Christine Elers (Ngā Hau), Junior Research Officer, Center for Culture-centered Approach to Research & Evaluation (CARE)

We are writing about the government’s covid-19 wage subsidy package, in particular:

  • the sick leave payment due to be folded into the modified covid-19 wage subsidy package; and
  • the online publication outlining the names of all employers who have received the covid-19 wage subsidy package.

CARE Expresses Its Solidarity with our Activist-In-Residence Jolovan Wham

CARE’s Activist-in-Residence Jolovan Wham has surrendered himself to serve a 1 week jail sentence today, March 31 2020, for criticising Singapore’s judiciary.

In his statement posted on Facebook, Jolovan voiced:

“I’m doing this in lieu of a 5k fine because I do not recognise the legitimacy of the judgment and the law, both of which are unjust.

It should never be an offence to speak your truth. Decades of oppression and persecution have resulted in the normalisation of fear. It is so normalised that we have become indifferent to injustice, especially political injustice and threats to our civil rights. We have shrugged it off so much that over time, we’ve become numb to it, instead of feeling outraged.

If we can’t speak up, assemble freely, and campaign without looking over our shoulders, the reforms we want can only be done on the terms of those in power. We will have to wait for when they are ready. All this could take years, decades, or never at all. Or we can only pick issues which are considered ‘low hanging fruit.

All the levers of change are controlled and those who don’t follow the script are persecuted. We are so muted, we can only plead, but never make our demands as equals.

Acts of non-violent resistance and disobedience has to be one of the tools we use to open up our already shrinking civil and political space and to empower ourselves. It often starts with one person, or a small group of people, but over time, with persistence and repetition of action, the space will enlarge and we will progress, one step at a time.

We need to speak our truths, and to do so, we should refuse to fear. I refuse to be complicit in the diminishment of my spirit: resistance is no longer a choice in a system determined to de-humanise you.

There should be a role for those who not only negotiate the boundaries but transgress them. Not everyone can take this position and I understand those who can’t because the costs may be high; my privilege, on the other hand, allows me to take greater risks, and for that I am grateful.”

Sharing below an interview conducted by Professor Mohan Dutta with Jolovan on the topic of authoritarian repression and strategies for social change. Also sharing Jolovan’s public talk as activist-in-residence at CARE. CARE stands with you in solidarity, because as you say so eloquently, “Those of us who can risk it, should. Those who can’t, should show their support, because solidarity is the first step to change.”

A Conversation with Jolovan Wham, CARE Activist-in-Residence

Professor Mohan J Dutta sits down with CARE Activist-in-Residence Jolovan Wham about his work in Singapore

Posted by CARE: Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation on Monday, 25 November 2019
Public Talk with Jolovan Wham

First World Authoritarianism: Lessons from SingaporeTune in for this exciting public talk with CARE Activist-in-Residence Jolovan Wham!

Posted by CARE: Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation on Tuesday, 26 November 2019

CARE OPED: COVID19 – India’s Underclasses and the Depravity of Our Unequal Societies

What COVID19 makes visible

Article: COVID19 – India’s Underclasses and the Depravity of Our Unequal Societies

“It takes a pandemic to render visible the deep inequalities that make up the highly unequal societies we inhabit. As pandemics go, the power of COVID19 lies in its mobility, along the circuits of global capital, picked up and carried by the upwardly mobile classes feeding the financial and technology hubs of capital.

The irony of neoliberal globalization lies in the disproportionate burden of accelerated mobilities borne by the bodies of the poor at the global margins. The poor, whose bodies are the sites of neoliberal extraction, are also the bodies to be easily discarded when crises hit.

The images of throngs of people, the poor, now expelled from their spaces of precarious work at the metropolitan centers of financial and technology capital, spaces that are projected as the poster-models of mobility in development propaganda, walking on the long walk home, are circulating across our mobile screens.

Images of a migrant worker dead after the gruelling walk home, a mother pulling her daughter as they try to make their way home, a young man bursting into tears at the sight of food, a father walking as he carries his sleeping daughter on his shoulders, crowds of workers waiting in long lines to board buses, these are the faces of the unequal India made visible by COVID19.

These images of emaciated men and women, with little children, carrying pots, torn down bags and dilapidated beddings on their heads, walking on the roads and highways that form the infrastructures of the new India are haunting reminders of the masses of displaced people expelled by wars, riots, genocides, and famines.”

By: MOHAN J.DUTTA | 29 MARCH, 2020



CARE has been responding to COVID19 through our community advisory groups, community workshops, and community researchers. The communities we have been working in have been creatively developing a wide range of interventions, advocacy, and activist solutions. Please click the link below to explore our policy briefs, white papers, and interventions addressing COVID-19 based on the key tenets of the CCA

EVENT UPDATE: Upcoming CARE Anti-Racism Week events online- 21-23 March 2020

Kia Ora,

Message sent on behalf of Prof Mohan Dutta (Director, Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE)) following up on the earlier email, below are the updated event posters and the online livestream links to CARE’s Anti-Racism Events between 21-23 March 2020

21 March @ 2 pm – #EndTheHate Campaign Launch – ONLINE

Event Page:

Livestream link: @CAREMassey

22 March  @ 4 pm – ONLINE

#ENDTHEHATE: Strategies for dismantiling hate

Guest speaker: Anjum Rahman

Event page:

Facebook livestream Link:

23 March @ 5 pm – ONLINE

CARE Event: Connecting Anti-Racist Struggles: From Indigenous Resistance To Refugee Rights

Guest speaker: Marise Lant

Event page:

Facebook livestream Link:   

CARE: Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation + Te Tiriti Based Futures -21-28-March 2020 Events

Upcoming CARE: Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation Events during the National Anti-racism week.

Te Tiriti-based Futures + Anti-Racism 2020 is an innovative (inter)national, online and offline, Tiriti-based, anti-racism and decolonisation event in Aotearoa. CARE is proud to be partnering and participating is this community driven event that will run for 10 days starting 21 March 2020.

RSVP on @CAREMassey events below

21 MARCH 2020
2PM – 4PM City Library PNCC, Events centre
White Paper Launch:
The Experience & Effects of Racisim in Aotearoa New
#ichoosehighbury launch

22 MARCH 2020
4PM City Library PNCC,Events centre
#ENDTHEHATE: Stratergies for dismantiling hate.

koha entry

23 MARCH 2020
4PM – 7PM City Library PNCC,Events centre
Connecting anti- racist struggle: From indigenous resistance to refugee rights.- Marise Lant

24 MARCH 2020
6PM – 8PM
Dismantaling Racisim with Andrew Judd, Marise Lant and the Feilding Advisory board.

26 MARCH 2020
11AM – 1PM St. Michael’s Marae Highbury
The Racist Roots Of Colonialism Speakers: Rodney Graham & Marise Lant.

4PM – 7PM Youth Space Youth Voice For Social Change -Dismantaling Racism.

-5:30PM Youth Panel Online Stratergies For Challenging Hate
Skype presentation
-Tauiwi Tautoko
-Q&A with Laura, Action Station, Director

27 MARCH 2020
– CARE Public Panel: “Islamophobia, Hindutva, & Hate”

28 MARCH 2020
11AM – 11:45AM

12PM – 4PM PNNC – Square
“Community Dialouge On Anti-Racism ”
-Looking Forward
-Poetry, Open mic, Spoken word
-Poster making #ENDTHEHATE

#EndTheHate #WhakamutuaTeMauāhara#TeTiritiBasedFutures + #AntiRacism2020

CARE Event: Pizza and conversation about racism

Have YOU experienced racism at @MasseyUni? Share your stories over
FREE pizza with us at CARE: Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation

Come & join us at CARE: Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation
Time: 4:00PM
If you get lost ring!
0800MASSEY extn 85662

CARE Visiting Lecture -Public Talk – Dr. Laura Miller -University of Tennessee

Communicating about cancer: Considerations for identity and uncertainty management

Date: Thursday, 20 Feb 2020 Time: 12pm – 1pm
Location: BSC 1.06 CARE Lab, Manawatu campus. Massey University

Talk Abstract:
Communicating about cancer presents many challenges for patients and their families. Uncertainty is prevalent across the survivorship trajectory; specifically, questions regarding recurrence, unexplained symptoms, and renegotiating relational roles all may persist after cancer treatment is completed. This talk will consider the communication processes and uncertainty management strategies patients and families engage in throughout a cancer experience and beyond.

Short Bio:
Laura Miller received her PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently an Associate Professor in the School of Communication Studies at the University of Tennessee in the USA. Her works explores how individuals communicate about health, how families communicate support amid health stressors, and how illness-related uncertainty is managed. She is passionate about global education and has taught in Beijing, Dublin, and Sydney.