Singapore is keeping an eye on its migrant workers

By Charlotte Glennie
BBC News, Singapore

Image caption,
Lovlu Mia from Bangladesh couldn't cook when he first arrived in Singapore 12 years ago

At Singapore's largest dormitory for foreign workers, Lovlu Mia is cooking chapatis over a hot flame in a giant kitchen.

The 36 year-old Bangladeshi works on construction sites, earning $720 (£492) a month and he sends most of it to his wife and five-year-old son back home.

He is one of thousands of migrant workers housed at the Tuas View Dormitory - a huge new complex in Singapore's industrial far west.

In the past, foreign workers' accommodation has been the subject of criticism from human rights groups. So Tuas View, with beds for 16,800 men and medical and shopping facilities, is being hailed as the ideal model for housing them.

It's like a small town, with a mini-market, a food court, a medical clinic and a dentist.

Employers pay the bills - $220 per month for a bed and a locker. The workers' laundry and cleaning are done for them.

There's also a well-equipped gym and a cricket pitch. At night the men watch the latest Bollywood movies on a large outdoor screen. There's even a view of the sea.

But for the residents there is a trade-off. While they enjoy better facilities here, they give up some privacy.

Media caption,
The BBC visited a dormitory for 17,000 people in 2015

Each time they arrive home, workers are required to give their fingerprints. Almost 250 CCTV cameras monitor them.

"If the company is saying to us: 'What time did he come in? What time did he go out? Because he's not been coming to work, he's disappearing', we can give them a record," says Mr V Ranjan, the dormitory's camp manager.

Surveillance also means that if a crime were to occur, dormitory authorities could supply information to police, he adds.

Image caption,
Workers are finger-printed upon entry and exit
Image caption,
Nearly 250 CCTV cameras are onsite to monitor the residents at the dormitory

Some argue the plan is partly motivated by a desire to separate these workers from mainstream society. In 2013 a rare migrant worker riot broke out in the city's Little India district. Police cars were burned and officers attacked.

Jolovan Wham, from Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), says he believes the thinking behind the big out-of town dormitories is "to keep [migrant workers] out of the mainstream as much as possible… so outbreaks of violence will be less likely to happen or, if they do, it will be easier to contain".

Mr R Subra, a consultant at Tuas View, has been in the business of housing such workers for two decades. He says the construction of new super-dorms like his are not linked to the riot, but the result of long-term government planning aimed at improving their lot.

Image caption,
The dormitory has a grocery shop on site

But, he adds, if those workers are provided with enough on-site facilities, then aside from going to work, they won't need to venture out much into the wider community.

"When they go into the neighbourhood, maybe certain Singaporeans will not welcome them," he said. "So we are trying to keep these people as much as possible in the dormitory complex so they will be happy."

Far from the city

Residents of Tuas View come from countries including India, Bangladesh, China, Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines. They work in blue-collar industries like construction, shipping, oil and gas, and pharmaceuticals.

The workers, who sleep 12 to a room, are free to come and go as they please. But the dorm is about as far from the city centre as you can get.

Tuas View Dormitory

  • Singapore's biggest dormitory with 20 four-storey blocks
  • The complex can accommodate up to 16,800 residents
  • The first integrated facility built for foreign workers
  • Amenities include a minimart, a beer garden and a 250-seat cinema

"Here the air is very fresh," says Gogo Perez, a father of three from the Philippines. "And if you want to exercise you have a lot of places, a gym and a basketball court."

It's very different to how many of Singapore's migrant workers live.

They are spread throughout the city, in accommodation ranging from temporary set-ups on construction sites, to crowded rooms above shops.

The BBC was given a video of a dormitory attached to a factory - a narrow, cramped room full of rudimentary bunk beds, with no mattresses, just wooden boards. We were told 25 people were living in it.

More photos of other dorms provided by the workers' advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) revealed similarly crowded and unsanitary conditions.

But despite its advantages the dormitory at Tuas View is still less than half full. Many employers are resisting accommodating their workers in such facilities, because other places are cheaper.

Image caption,
Employers cover the accommodation costs at the dormitory

Workers' advocates say the lack of privacy is not something migrant workers complain about. They have come to expect close scrutiny.

In fact TWC2's Debbie Fordyce says foreign workers rarely complain about anything, as long as they're getting paid.

Last year Singapore introduced legislation regulating living conditions in large-scale accommodation. A spokesperson from the Ministry of Manpower says the needs of foreign workers are better met through purpose-built dormitories with adequate living space and recreational facilities. And it says these are generally located no more than about 25 kilometres from the city centre.

Debbie Fordyce says she's all in favour of the government improving workers' accommodation but still has reservations about how it's being done.

"We hear the government talking about having a better relationship with foreign workers, but we see them housed in these far off places and it looks like a type of apartheid."

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