Singapore almost had the coronavirus crisis under control. But now a massive outbreak in the dormitories for foreign guest workers is shocking the rich city-state.
Although Singapore is one of the most prosperous countries in the world, many companies save money in the city-state wherever possible. In one of the dormitories in the northeast of the metropolis, employers can rent accommodation for their employees at dumping prices: a room of 48 square meters costs just under 200 euros per month, in which ten to 18 people are accommodated on bunk beds.
The residents are mostly immigrants from countries such as India and Bangladesh. A total of around 200,000 foreign workers in Singapore live in the tightest of spaces in the cheap dormitories.
Usually, the financial metropolis, which boasts clean streets and shiny skyscrapers, hardly pays attention to low-wage workers – although they have long since become indispensable as construction workers and cleaners. The corona crisis is now putting them at the center of public debate.
The reason is a massive virus outbreak in their dormitories, which is increasingly getting out of control. It raises great doubts about Singapore’s alleged role model in dealing with the pandemic – and highlights how the rich state deals with the poorest in its society.
Singapore seemed to have had the situation under control for a long time: with the help of strict quarantine for infected people and travelers from abroad, the metropolis of six million inhabitants was able to contain the virus crisis almost completely.
But since the beginning of the month, the number of infections has skyrocketed: On Friday, the Ministry of Health reported 623 new infections – the daily growth has increased more than tenfold within three weeks.
Almost all new cases are due to guest workers’ dormitories, where the virus recently spread rapidly. Those who know the living conditions there are anything but surprised: the social distancing that everyone demands is impossible in the cramped spaces. Foreign workers now account for significantly more than half of the approximately 5000 coronavirus cases in Singapore.
The wave of infections started in the S11 Dormitory, which, according to local media, houses around 13,000 people. The private operating company advertises on its website that it offers Singapore’s cheapest worker accommodation.
The price was obviously reflected in the quality: The local newspaper “Straits Times” reported that roaches in the rooms and overflowing toilets.
Corona crisis puts conditions in dormitories on the political agenda
Although NGOs have been complaining about the low standards in the homes for years, it was only the corona crisis that brought the issue to the top of the political agenda. Singapore behaves like a third world country when dealing with its guest workers, criticized Singapore’s former representative to the United Nations, Tommy Koh. “The dormitories were like a time bomb waiting to explode.”
Minister of Labor Josephine Teo promised to improve living conditions in the homes. But she complained of the resistance of the economy: “Every time we try to raise the standards, there is an outcry from employers about the additional costs,” she wrote in a Facebook post.
“I hope that Covid-19 will now make it clear to employers and the general public that higher standards in the dormitories are not only correct, but also in our own interest.” Teo said that higher costs should also be accepted.
Starting salaries for the more than one million guest workers in Singapore are around 400 euros per month, according to the 2017 figures. Compared to the general prosperity in the Southeast Asian small state, this is extremely little: According to the World Bank, per capita income in Singapore is 35 percent higher than that in Germany.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s government is now making every effort to control the virus outbreak in the guest workers’ homes. 7,000 essential workers who tested negative for the virus have been relocated to alternative accommodation in the past few days.
At the same time, 13 of the 43 dormitories were declared isolation zones. For residents, this means that they are not allowed to leave their rooms for 14 days.
For Prime Minister Lee and the ruling party PAP, which has been in power since 1959, the crisis is coming out of time. According to media reports, the government plans to hold new elections in the coming weeks. Now their crisis management is increasingly criticized.
Ho Ching, the head of the state-owned investment holding Temasek and wife of the prime minister, defended Singapore’s actions, but also showed self-criticism: “We all underestimated the asymptomatic contagion – not just Singapore, but the whole world,” she wrote on Friday evening in a Facebook Post Office. In the fight against Covid-19, however, it would have to be expected that mistakes would occur and one would stumble. “We have to get up now and keep walking.”
The organization TWC2, which campaigns for the rights of guest workers in Singapore, is now campaigning for a fundamental new start in dealing with migrants. In a message, she asked that foreign workers no longer be exposed to living conditions that would not be accepted for themselves.
More: Corona is bringing poverty back to emerging markets. Read more here.