COVID-19 and Singapore’s complex relationship with migrant workers |

Singapore foreign worker
Image by Justin Zhuang

By Bhawna Sharma

Just when Singapore thought it had braved the worst of COVID-19, the second wave returned with swift vengeance. This time, 400,000 marginalised yet economically-indispensable migrant workers housed in large-scale dormitories scattered across the island-city would feel the domino effect. Despite being warned repeatedly about an imminent outbreak among workers, Singapore failed the very men who toiled day and night to build its futuristic skyline.

Having exposed Singapore’s problematic treatment of migrant workers, the country’s COVID-19 planning is now being intensely debated, revealing the sordid foundations of economic growth and efficiency.

A matter of privilege and discrimination?

The dark undertones of race and privilege surfaced when headlines about the first major outbreak at dormitory S11 splashed The Straits Times’ Facebook page. Scrolling through the comments section, one will find keyboard warriors calling for migrant workers to be sent back home.

They are also quick to assume that foreign workers practice poor hygiene, are culturally-backwards, and do not deserve government protection funded by taxpayers’ money. Most saddening were the reactions to healthy foreign workers being shifted to cruise ships, as netizens complained about the government pampering them too much at the cost of Singaporeans.

Screenshot from the comments section of ST’s Facebook post

These reactions are neither new nor surprising. They represent an ideology that has defined Singapore since its founding days: stripping social policy down to a cost-benefit analysis in the pursuit of efficiency. Too many migrant workers getting infected from COVID-19? Just send them back home. Not enough land? Let’s make a floating city for them (aka, a neoliberal dystopia). 

For a country that is the gold standard in Southeast Asia, any deviation becomes a nuisance—even the dignity of thousands of migrant workers. 

Social activist Kirsten Han equates the idea of a floating city with apartheid

Singapore’s response: the good and the bad

The rapid response of the Singapore government in erecting make-shift facilities, conducting extensive testing, and providing wifi for migrant workers is indeed impressive given how the outbreak snowballed in a matter of days. But even then, it is difficult to ignore the dehumanising aspect of using unused car-parks and void decks as temporary facilities—especially since there are plenty of hotels with vacancies around.

It is strangely contradictory how on one hand, Singapore claims to not leave its foreign workers behind, but on the other, subjects them to humiliating conditions.

Minister of Manpower’s Josephine Teo also displayed poor tact when she remarked that no migrant worker personally demanded an apology. Once again, the marginal utility of an apology was measured by its cold, pragmatic necessity. 

Employers and dorm operators

The new cluster has further raised concerns about the crowded nature of dorm rooms. While many have accused dorm operators of greed and lax practices, the bigger picture is more complicated than that.

Dorm operators argue that they are simply adhering to government guidelines; employers stress that they are equally limited. According to one dorm operator contacted by Rice Media, employers have to juggle multiple costs such as levies, accommodation, and salaries, all within a fixed budget. Reducing government-set levies, which can cost up to $700 per migrant worker, may potentially free up some margin for improving housing, pay, and food.

The way forward

Singapore’s relationship with its migrant workers is a complex one characterised by ignorance, oppression, and pity. That is why even though migrant workers are physically visible, they are psychologically invisible. Firstly, we need to change the way we think about workers from cogs in a capitalist machinery to human beings living far from home in search of a better life. Only then will the government, employers and dorm operators understand the seriousness of providing better living spaces. 

Social awareness may take one generation—or two—before migrant workers no longer attract the condescension of Singaporeans.

When the government announced plans to build better dorms – some of them near residential areas – netizens were vocal about their criticism.

keyboard warrior

On the bright side, the new generation are advocating change. From keen social activism on Instagram, to creating a website with Bengali translations for medical teams, millennials are showing extraordinary empathy towards and support for migrant workers in an otherwise unforgiving society.

For now, let us hope that when things blow over, the welfare of migrant workers is finally given the attention it deserves.