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Migrant workers fear massive Singapore dormitory lockdown is coronavirus time bomb

by Reuters
Monday, 6 April 2020 14:39 GMT

Workers from Bangladesh, India and China look out of their balconies during food distribution at Punggol S-11 workers' dormitory, which was gazetted to be an isolation facility after it became a cluster of coronavirus cases (COVID-19), in Singapore April 6, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

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The nearly 20,000 workers worry that infection will soon spread through their cramped, squalid quarters while in lockdown

(Adds comments from manpower ministry and Human Rights Watch, adds TV)

By John Geddie and Ruma Paul

SINGAPORE/DHAKA, April 6 (Reuters) - Migrant workers living in vast Singapore dormitories cut off from the outside world due to the coronavirus outbreak fear their cramped and squalid quarters are fast becoming a hotbed for infection.

Singapore on Sunday said it had quarantined nearly 20,000 workers in two dormitories, made up of mainly Bangladeshi and other South Asian manual workers, after they were linked to at least 90 infections.

The government said the action was needed to prevent broader transmission in the city-state - which is closing schools and offices this week due to a spike in cases - and said it had taken measures to reduce worker interaction in the dormitories and ensure they received salary, meals and medical support.

But the move has been criticised by rights groups and others who say it may be discriminatory and risks exposing healthy individuals to a higher chance of infection.

"If anyone is infected with the virus in our room or in our block, it is just a matter of time to catch the virus," said Majidul Haq, a 25-year-old Bangladeshi, who stays at the S11 Dormitory @Punggol with some 13,000 other workers.

Haq and three other workers told Reuters they sleep in cramped 12-bed bunk rooms, share toilets and basins often blocked from overuse, and that cockroaches and overflowing refuse bins are a common sight.

The manager of the dormitory did not respond to a request for comment. The government's manpower ministry said on Monday it was working with the dormitory operators to prioritise the wellbeing of workers, including stepping up cleaning.

"We seek the public's understanding and patience as we work with the dormitory operators to resolve the ground challenges," the ministry said.

When Reuters visited the Punggol site on Monday, six police cars lined the road outside the purpose-built, low-rise complex and a police tent had been erected at its entrance. The only activity came from the coming and going of several ambulances and masked workers ferrying rubbish into large plastic bins.

Human Rights Watch said the quarantine created a "tinderbox" for infection and urged Singapore to quickly test all workers and move the sick out of the dormitories to medical facilities.

Amnesty International called the lockdown "a recipe for disaster".

"As it stands, the quarantine at these dormitories may be discriminatory and amount to an arbitrary deprivation of liberty," said the charity's Singapore researcher, Rachel Chhoa-Howard.

Amnesty has raised similar concerns about lockdowns of migrant worker accommodation in Qatar, while mass transmission of the disease among people living in close quarters such as on cruise ships and in prisons has been a feature of the pandemic which has infected over a million people globally.


"This is the tip of the iceberg," said Alex Au, vice president of rights group, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).

"When you pack people in such density...all this mantra about isolation and social distancing is useless."

To combat rising virus cases, Singapore has advised its residents to stay home, not socialise and maintain a metre distance between each other if they have to go out for essential activities like shopping.

Authorities have said they are also stepping up precautions in other dormitories as well, including trying to reduce the density of residents.

The quarantining of the dormitories has also highlighted the broader issue of the treatment of foreign blue-collar workers critical to the development of gleaming, modern Singapore, said the city-state's former ambassador to the United Nations.

"The dormitories were like a time bomb waiting to explode," Tommy Koh said in a widely shared Facebook post on Monday.

"Singapore should treat this as a wake up call to treat our indispensable foreign workers like a First World country should and not in the disgraceful way in which they are treated now."

Bangladeshi construction worker Shahadat Hossain, 30, said he and his colleagues were "so afraid" at the prospect of two weeks of confinement at the Punggol complex.

"It would be a total disaster if someone is infected in my room," said Hossain. "How can we control the infection as we live in such a crowded place?" (Reporting by John Geddie, Fathin Ungku, Aradhana Aravindan and Edgar Su in Singapore and Ruma Paul in Dhaka; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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