Foreign Worker Dormitories: Is threshold for licence too low?

(This article first appeared on www.rangosteen.com)

Another construction company is taken to task by the MOM. B-Construction was fined S$74,000 for housing foreign workers in unapproved accommodation. They pleaded guilty to 11 charges under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act.

According to the MOM, B-Construction housed its foreign workers at a construction site located at Canberra Crescent from January to June last year, housing them in containers and makeshift zinc huts. Sanitary facilities were inadequate; only three poorly maintained portable toilets with no proper toilets or shower areas. Workers had to shower in open-air wash areas with hoses.

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An “acceptable accommodation” is defined by the MOM as housing that meets various statutory requirements, including technical standards pertaining to structural safety, fire safety, environmental health and sanitation; and complies with prevailing land use policies.

I’m concerned in particular, about fire safety. According to the SCDF, there had been 4,604 fire calls in 2015 alone. This works out to be about 12 fires every single day. This number had been consistent for the past 10 years. It means that there are some 12 fires a day in Singapore. (Ironically enough a fire truck sped past my office as I was writing this)

The Fire Safety Act requires any public building that has an occupant load of more than 200 persons to obtain a Fire Certificate. This certificate would require the owner to have Emergency Response Plans, appoint Fire Safety Managers, Company Emergency Response Teams amongst other preventive and responsive measures.

The threshold for a Foreign Worker Dormitory to be licensed is 1000 occupants. One thousand is a lot of people living in a building! If the licence is not required, does it also mean that the preventive/responsive measures are more lax?

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In April 2015, two Bangladeshis, in their early twenties, died in a fire in a private residential unit in Lorong 6, Geylang. Three others were sent to hospital.

The Straits Times had an investigative piece in August 2015 reporting that worker accommodations in Geylang are still crammed, 6 months after the fatal fire. The report quotes _“A handwritten sign saying “Private Property Do Not Enter” hangs over the unlit and dirty entrance of an apartment building in Geylang Lorong 21. Those who do enter are foreign workers living in the shabby and overcrowded units they call home.”_

 

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Aren’t these, for all means and purposes, foreign worker dormitories? For the safety and well being of the workers, why are they not subject to the same preventive measures as purpose built dormitories? Or if they have been illegally converted, what are the steps taken to trace who the employers are and take them to task?
My colleagues at the Migrant Workers Centre (MWC) had also put across their frustrations about “Factory Converted Dormitories”. The MWC revealed that it found instances of dangerous overloaded electrical points, unhygienic sleeping quarters infested with bedbugs and filthy cooking areas. The Centre had since shared its findings with the MOM and working with them on improving these matters.

The MWC also conducts unannounced visits from time to time. This is done in partnership with the MOM and the police. MWC chairman Yeo Guat Kwang said one particular distress call led to findings of conditions that were not sanitary and did not provide the minimum personal space, noting: “No proper amenities for cooking and storage were provided, despite the fact that cooking took place on site. There were possible fire risks with overloading of electrical points exacerbated by the overcrowding; washing and toilet facilities were also not adequately provided.”

 

 

 

About the author

Benjamin Chiang

Benjamin Chiang is an enthusiast of good advertising, deep thinking, labour issues and chocolate. He writes also at www.rangosteen.com and occasionally on Yahoo!

The views expressed are his own.

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