Foreign Worker Dormitories: An Insider’s View

Yesterday, we spoke with Vanessa M, 30, for an insider’s view of what happens at the S11 dormitories on a usual day. She sent us some videos that we published here:

Vanessa was working with S11 as their liaison officer for 2.5 years, dealing with communications, outreach and foreign workers’ welfare.

1. What are the dorms like on a usual day? Their room condition, food and income?

There are typically 10-12 workers in a room with full occupancy. The employers of the workers almost always make a site visit to view the dorm’s facilities before deciding to house them at the dorm. There are no fixed timings during which these site visits are conducted. Therefore, they see the dorm and its amenities as is. Often, they like what they see – esp in terms of high security, hygiene, house rules etc and make their decision from there.

The dorm makes it a point to refer to the FWs as residents. When I first joined the company, my bosses had to correct me several times every time I ignorantly referred to them as FWs lol.

When the residents are brought to their new rooms, it would be handed to them sanitised and a room i/c (appointed by their employer) would sign to confirm he has received the room in good order (i.e. clean, no loose fittings, etc). From my observations, FWs tend to travel with bulky luggage and this can cause congestion in the room. They also like to hang their clothes on the ceiling beams, which is against a house rule adding further to the congestion. Aside from the ceiling fans installed, they have options to install air-conditioning at an additional cost, either borne by them (i.e. split the cost) or their employers. Making them pay for the airconditioning means they would also be energy-conscious.

Residents are also made to sit through a compulsory introductory video in English, Tamil, Mandarin and Bengali. This video not only introduces the house rules to them but also outlines the need for civic mindedness as they share a communal living space.

Kitchen facilities and spacious dining halls are shared and kept separate from their rooms.  Most residents’ however have the majority of their meals catered from external vendors. The dorm endures catered food are properly handled and collected within 2 hours from preparation. While they enjoy carb-heavy meals of curry, rice and side dishes, they sometimes use their weekend to make their rotis and pancakes.

One challenge I faced was communicating to FWs the need to keep food away from their rooms. Should they need to store food, they are to use airtight containers and their refrigerators. They often don’t, attracting pests to their rooms.

Income varies with the residents and it’s hard for me to put a number to it. I’ve met residents who have been in Singapore for over 10 years, drawing a four-figure salary. With their accomodation wholly (and sometimes, daily catered meals) paid for by their employers, the dorms provide them a secure and restful space to call home in Singapore. At least from what I saw.

Essentially, purpose-built dorms like S11 do their best to meet the workers’ needs by providing them a space in Singapore where they will not be shunned or regarded as an eyesore to Singapore’s pristine makeup. There,  they have a space to enjoy a drink with their friends (beer garden), catch up on their reading, watch television, play a game of pool and etc.

2. What are your views about the criticisms of the dorms all over the internet now?

The criticism comes off as highly ignorant to me. It also comes from a place of privilege – we read the papers, cry bloody murder and go back to being the racists, insensitive, unwelcoming people many FWs are familiar with. Do they really think the various arms of the Government eft these dorms to run themselves as they please? One of my biggest challenges was dealing with strict officers from NEA/BCA who would nitpick on even the smallest bald patch on a field or the slightlest pooling of rainwater, for the fear of dengue breeding.

I can’t speak for all dorms, but during my time in S11, I felt a sense of fulfillment knowing that the residents had the most capable security team – one that patrols their living areas several times a day, interacting with them and building mutual trust (as a woman, I never had a single fear walking the grounds of the dorm when my job called for it); a housekeeping team that washes the grounds multiple times a day only to be greeted with unsanitary behaviour each time they make their rounds. Can you imagine cleaning after 14,000 FWs several times a day? I didn’t think so.

My role was to be their voice and that of the management; to create a bridge through monthly outreach events and various communication efforts. Government agencies would drop by the dorms every other week for spot checks to ensure the dorm was spick and span.

All the criticism comes from a place of disconnect which unfortunately undermines the persistent hardwork of many people in dormitories.

3. Were there calls or protests asking for the workers to go back to their home countries?

There had never been a single occasion during my time with the company that I experienced the onslaught of a protest nor have I heard of one. The security team has a good rapport with many of the residents and this helps in diffusing any tension from escalating. I walked the ground a fair bit and almost always been met with a chirpy greeting or engaged in a cordial chat with the residents.

The circumstances now inevitably causes much stress for the FWs, as it does for us. They scramble to collect their meals, scramble to have a quick smoke, scramble to keep the virus away from them. But remember, these FWs are adults too. They too have a big responsibility towards personal hygiene and the sanitation of their environment.

Should cost be a concern for them, many outreach events leave them with goodie bags filled with personal hygiene items, on top of calling cards and snacks.

4. What more can we do after this is over?

There appears to be a disconnect between what dorm operators do and what the general public understands. The dorm operators pretty much play the role of nannies for FWs’ employers. There can be more conversation on how NGOs like MWC are able to support the work of dorm operators.

Initiatives by S11, such as the compulsory introductory video and the monthly awards for cleanest rooms are self-initiated. I remember spending many late evenings with my former colleagues to put these events/videos together for them. NGOs can be a part of these initiatives, as outreach means more than handing out a pamphlet or two.

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