SINGAPORE: They had asked to fly back home due to fears about COVID-19 but as countries went into lockdown, flights were cancelled and the migrant workers are now in quarantine, unable to leave even their dormitory rooms.

One anxious employer told CNA that three of his workers had bought tickets back to Bangladesh about a month back but their flights were cancelled as the country suspended flights from Singapore and other countries last month.

They are now staying with dozens of co-workers at S11 @ Punggol, which was gazetted an isolation area by the Ministry of Health (MOH) on Sunday (Apr 5). 

Mr Tang, who runs a local electrical works firm, said he has 26 workers staying at three rooms there.

The dormitory had 283 COVID-19 cases as of Thursday and is the worst-hit of the worker dormitories. 

Several dormitories have found coronavirus cases and three others have been declared isolation areas – Westlite Toh Guan, Toh Guan Dormitory and Sungei Tengah Lodge.

On Thursday, Singapore reported a record daily spike of 287 COVID-19 cases, with 202 of the new cases linked to clusters at migrant worker dormitories.

READ: Singapore reports a record 287 new COVID-19 cases with more than half linked to dormitory cluster

Ms Jacqueline Koay, operations manager and director of tiling works firm Tilecon, said that before the recent increase in cases, some of her Bangladeshi workers had wanted to go home as they were “afraid”.

“Once, they saw an ambulance at Sungei Tengah Lodge … the next day, all of them came up to my office, they said they want to go home,” she said.

She managed to allay their fears and the workers stayed. But Ms Koay said she now “feels bad” about persuading them to stay, although it’s not clear if the workers could have returned given the flight suspensions in Bangladesh.

“They trusted us, now it turns out like that, I feel bad,” she said. “Now they’re locked.”

Sungei Tengah Lodge, Singapore’s largest worker dormitory, was the latest such facility to be put in isolation at 11.45pm on Wednesday (Apr 8).

It can house up to 25,000 workers but it’s not clear how many are now in quarantine. There are nearly 25,000 workers in quarantine at the other three dormitories in isolation.

Worker dormitory Sungei Tengah Lodge at Old Choa Chu Kang Road was declared an isolation area after a spike of COVID-19 cases there.

In a Ministry of Manpower (MOM) email to employers that was seen by CNA on Thursday morning, workers from two of the 10 blocks in Sungei Tengah Lodge were instructed to remain in their rooms, while workers from unaffected blocks were told they “should” stay in their rooms and leave only at scheduled times to cook, eat and visit the minimart.

Worried that there would be long queues at the minimart in the dormitory, Ms Koay’s company bought its workers supplies, such as rice and eggs, so that the more than 50 workers would have some food for the 14 days that they are required to stay in the dormitory.

“We’re very worried about our workers,” she said, adding that long queues at the minimart may expose them to the virus. The company’s workers are housed in five rooms.

On Thursday evening, authorities announced that food will be provided for all workers so that they will not need to cook or gather at minimarts.

READ: COVID-19: Range of measures to deal with foreign worker dormitory clusters

Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang from Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, National University of Singapore told CNA that the number of people in one room is not “strictly speaking” a factor of virus spread.

“If they can space out the distance to about two metres between each bed or person, and get the toilets as well as other common facilities cleaned regularly, it will be helpful,” he said. 

He also recommended separating all those with symptoms and testing the rest of the asymptomatic workers quickly, so they can be isolated.

The Government on Thursday said that it has stepped up testing at affected dormitories and is actively screening the workers for coronavirus. It is also in the process of moving some healthy residents to other locations.

MEDICAL SYSTEM IS “BETTER” IN SINGAPORE

Mr Yoga Nathan, owner of SM Waste Management, said that one of his workers also wanted to fly back to India last month, but his flights got cancelled twice. 

The company’s workers are at Woodlands Lodge 2, which has not reported any COVID-19 cases. They have been advised to stay in their rooms as much as possible as all worker dormitories in Singapore have implemented stricter safe distancing guidelines amid the outbreak.

READ: Living conditions at S11 Dormitory, Westlite Toh Guan dormitories have ‘stabilised’: Migrant Workers’ Centre

As Singapore went into “circuit breaker” mode on Tuesday, non-essential work places closed, meaning that many of the workers now stay in the dormitories the entire day even if they are not in isolation. SM Waste workers can leave the dormitory, but only for work, as they carry out some essential cleaning services.

His workers are still worried about possibly catching the virus either outside or in the dormitory, he said, and he has asked them to always wear masks and to change them regularly.

“They check the temperature, but this sickness, no symptoms also suddenly will come, correct?” Mr Yoga said.

As Woodlands Lodge 2 has no cases yet, he feels that it is safer for the seven workers to stay in the dormitory, which has split the group into two rooms for safe distancing.

Photo of Toh Guan Dormitory (5)

Residents at Toh Guan Dormitory are seen carrying plastic bags. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo)

Ms Christine Pelly, an exco-member of NGO Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), said migrant workers have told them that they are anxious about contracting the disease.

“It’s very difficult to talk about social distancing in the conditions that they (have). They could be sharing a lift going down, they’re sharing toilets.”

READ: SAF will do more for COVID-19 fight if needed: Ng Eng Hen

But some workers have also said that they believe Singapore’s medical facilities are better. Ms Mandy Chih, managing director of Yong Fong Engineering & Construction, said that none of her workers had asked to go home.

“So far my workers are okay, they feel Singapore’s medical treatment is much better than [in] their home country,” she said. Her 20 workers are under quarantine in two rooms at Toh Guan Dormitory, which is an isolation area.

Toh Guan Dormitory

A room at Toh Guan Dormitory. (Photo courtesy of Mandy Chih)

But she is still concerned about the workers’ emotional health and they have a company group chat in which they send the workers encouraging messages, she said. The dormitory now provides free Wi-Fi to the workers.

Mr Tang said that there are still reports of food distribution being delayed at S11 @ Punggol and complaints from workers, despite action being taken to improve conditions at the dormitory. However, employers with workers at other dormitories said that conditions have improved. 

care pack 1 migrant worker dormitory COVID-19

A care pack sent to migrant workers at Toh Guan Dormitory. (Photo courtesy of Mandy Chih)

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo on Thursday promised to further improve conditions at the dormitories.

Meals will be provided to the workers so they do not need to congregate to prepare food, the frequency of cleaning and hygiene will be improved, and sick bays will be expanded to take care of those that need to be isolated, she said.

“In the past, it was always the dorm operators that took care of these things. I think we have to step in and help the dorm operators because it is an enormous task to be able to implement these changes in a short time,” said Mrs Teo.

READ: Inter-agency task force to help migrant workers living in dorms affected by COVID-19

A multi-ministry task force had been set up to look into this and the Government will ensure “effective management” at all dormitories, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the task force against COVID-19.

Ng Eng Hen at S11 Dormitory @ Punggol (1)

SAF Medical personnel attending to a foreign worker at S11 Dormitory @ Punggol on Thursday Apr 9, 2020. (Photo: MINDEF)

More workers will also be moved out of the dormitories to military camps, Changi Exhibition Centre and offshore floating lodgings to reduce the population density.

Authorities had earlier said that the Housing Board is refurbishing 21 vacant HDB blocks at Redhill Close to house foreign workers who are healthy and working in essential services.

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