Work in Singapore—The Choa Chu Kang migrant worker compound is almost unnoticeable amid densely populated public housing and a significant highway surrounded by trees.
The compound in the northwest of Singapore island is hidden behind a temporary gray wall, making it nearly difficult for the many passing automobiles to understand what is within. A row of blue-roofed dorms is hidden behind the wall. The compound’s basketball court is surrounded by a barbed-wire fence topped with spikes.
Over 300,000 migrant workers live and work here. Still, even as the island relaxes, some coronavirus rules allow those entirely vaccinated to travel again. The individuals who live and work here and in many other worker dormitories in the city-state have no such freedoms.
For Bangladeshi immigrant Narayan, 36, wearing a COVID badge makes him feel like an outsider. “Before we could walk outside, use public transportation, do everything, we never thought that we were abroad employees,” says Narayan.
In the northern region of Singapore, a barbed-wire fence encloses a basketball court used by employees.
Most workers only leave their apartments to go to work. Exit passes must be obtained if they want to visit the recreation center. There is no doubt about it:
“We are now unable to leave the house, and we are reminded that we are foreign workers.” Narayan, who sought anonymity out of fear of losing his work, said, “It’s not regular life,” he remarked.
Workers like Narayan have been subjected to COVID-19 controls for two years.
When they’re not at work, they stay in their dorms. Exit passes can only be obtained through a mobile phone app downloaded from Google Play or the Apple App Store. Only 3,000 fully vaccinated personnel is permitted out into the general public on weekdays, and double that amount is allowed out on weekends and national holidays. Working six days a week is the norm for most males.
Others who live in Singapore under “living with COVID” are experiencing a restoration to normalcy that contrasts sharply with the life of those who live under such tight control.
In Singapore, Narayan, who has lived here for nearly a decade, is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the limits that have been imposed on him.
The workers said they hoped the administration would keep us in mind. “We are all fallible creatures, and we can’t possibly spend much more time in the dorms. For our mental health, it’s not a part of the ordinary.”
COVID-19 arrived in Singapore two years ago. The authorities were able to maintain control of the issue thanks to an exact method of tracking down the people who had been in contact with the virus. A few modest limitations were placed, and the country remained open to visitors.
However, the infection quickly spread to the crowded quarters of migrant laborers.
According to Michael Cheah, Executive Director of HealthServe, a non-profit organization that provides medical care to workers, “dormitory-dwelling migrant workers would be more susceptible to infectious diseases due to their in-dormitory living conditions which do not allow much room for proper isolation.”
Many men work as manual laborers in physically demanding professions that Singaporeans avoid doing.
Moreover, according to a government breakdown, 80% of them are from South Asia.
“Migrant workers in Singapore accounted for over 90 percent of the confirmed cases during the pandemic’s first year. “This resulted in dormitory lockdowns and long-term limitations on movement for the disadvantaged group,” stated Cheah.
In April 2020, the first full dormitory lockdowns were put in place. A strict no-mixing policy in the communal spaces was implemented for the employees.
The island was in a “circuit-breaker” lockdown at the time, but since then, the difference between the workers inside and the rest of the population has been impossible to ignore.
It’s nearly impossible for migrant laborers to communicate with the rest of the population. As a result, they can only be seen at the gates of construction sites or ready to work on Singapore’s roadways at night.
“In my opinion, there is no significant difference between a prisoner and myself.” Mohammed, a 30-year-old laborer who spoke anonymously, said he felt alienated because of the COVID rules and was saddened by the disparity between his life and the rest of the population. In the eight years after he arrived in Singapore from Bangladesh, Mohammed has spent most of his time cooped up in his room due to an injury at work. Only to see a doctor is he allowed to depart.
“All humans have the same rights, and the COVID virus poses an equal risk to everyone. My question for the legislators is why they’re treating us differently, yet we’re all the same in every other way. We are all still human beings in need of liberation.”
He continued that other illnesses are afflicting immigrant workers who can’t get treatment because they’re imprisoned.
Work in Singapore: Rise in Stress Levels
In 2020, Singapore’s Yale-NUS college conducted a poll of more than 1,000 migrant workers and concluded that the limits on migration had contributed to a rise in sadness and stress levels.
There has been an alarming rise in the number of workers reporting signs of sadness and concern about the future, including an increased risk of suicide. On top of all the other difficulties they face. A request for an interview from Al Jazeera was rejected by Singapore’s Manpower Minister Tan See Leng.
Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower stated in a written statement: “We had kept health outcomes among migrant workers good, with insufficient numbers of mortalities among migrants in mid-2020, even before vaccination was available in Singapore and none since vaccination. Was rolled out.”
One worker told Al Jazeera: “I don’t think there is any difference between a person living in a jail and me.” There is no doubt about it:
Concerned about the wellness of migrant workers, the ministry responded by saying it had “developed a comprehensive support system to satisfy migrant workers’ mental wellbeing needs” and provided free in-person and hotline counseling by trained volunteers.
Workers’ lives are still restricted. The ministry recognized that it had been a “difficult moment” for them when asked when they would be allowed to resume the freedoms they enjoyed before the pandemic when pressed on the topic.
Migrant workers’ “recreation and social requirements will continue to be met while their health is protected,” the ministry said in a statement.
Little India, a key district of Singapore known for its South Asian restaurants and stores, was where the workers met up with their pals before the pandemic struck.
In 2013, a bus struck and killed a construction worker at this location, setting off a wave of violence that rocked the nation.
In Singapore’s first riot in 40 years, foreign workers’ treatment was questioned. Some argue that there is no longer a “rational reason” for the authorities to enforce such stringent restrictions on dormitory workers.
An advocate for migrant workers’ rights, Alex Au of the non-profit Transient Workers Count Too, believes that the government may view COVID-19 as an opportunity to impose stricter limitations on the country’s foreign workforce than the disease itself warrants.
It’s our concern that the pandemic will continue long after the epidemic is over.”