Operation Wolverine

In April and May 2014, Mr Kok Ping Soon, Deputy Secretary (Development) of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), took part in a series of inspections of foreign worker dormitories and construction sites. He shared his experience on Cube, the Public Service intranet, in June. Here are some of his observations.

What are the living conditions for the 770,000 non-domestic work permit holders in Singapore? Having just joined the MOM in January 2014, I decided to get the low-down on their housing situation.

On the eve of May Day, I accompanied the Foreign Manpower Management Division’s Housing Enforcement Branch (HEB) on a major operations visit. These are typically conducted in the evenings so that the team can inspect the living conditions as they are and check on the workers’ well-being. As the locations for enforcement visits are known only to a few in the HEB, I had no idea what would be in store.

Code-named Operation Wolverine (the team must be fans of X-Men!), it involved more than 20 HEB officers and officers from other agencies, such as the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF).

Our first stop was at a purpose-built dormitory in Tuas, with a capacity for 3,000 construction workers. The dormitory was operating at full capacity with each bed costing $290 per month. As no cooking is allowed, breakfast and dinner are available for an additional $90.

Along the corridors, I saw various onsite facilities: a barber offering haircuts for $5, a mini-mart selling sundry goods, a launderette with coin-operated washing machines... The inside of a dormitory resembles an army barrack, with each having six double-decker beds and metal cabinets for the workers’ belongings. No mattresses were in sight. Instead, wooden planks are used, which reduces the incidence of bed bugs.

The facility’s manager said that cultural differences and the living habits of workers of different nationalities can lead to squabbles. Nonetheless, many adopt a “live and let live” attitude and there are unwritten rules to minimise conflicts. With little indication that things were amiss, we wrapped up the inspection.

Our second stop was a factory-converted dormitory at Chin Bee Drive. A five-storey building annexed to a factory, it had approval from the SCDF to house 112 workers per floor from the second to the fifth floor. But an earlier recce suggested that it housed more workers. This unannounced inspection was to determine the extent of overcrowding and ascertain if the workers had acceptable living conditions.

Compared to the previous dormitory, these rooms were more crowded. Even to someone untrained like me, it was obvious that the minimum space requirement of 3 square metres per foreign worker was not met. Some rooms had more than 20 double- decker beds packed so tightly together, there was hardly room to move around. No cupboards or shelves meant that possessions were strewn everywhere.

At the end of the inspection, we had registered 356 workers but counted 472 occupied beds – above the approved occupancy load! The HEB will investigate the employers involved and impose fines. The SCDF will also be taking enforcement action as the dormitory lacked a Fire Safety Certificate. Would this dormitory be the worst one of the night?

Our final inspection was at a private terrace house in Paya Lebar, which had received complaints of too many workers residing there. It was fairly obvious that this unit housed foreign workers. The house looked dilapidated, with an iron gate secured by a number lock and windows hoarded up with plywood – all signs that the unit was tenanted to many people. Inside, over 20 workers shared a common kitchen and toilet. It reminded me of the “human battery hens” in Hong Kong.

The workers we interviewed had no major complaints – to them, having a roof over their heads and a bed is sufficient. They were more concerned with cost and proximity to their workplaces. But this does not make it right.

Foreign workers are vulnerable because they are unfamiliar with our laws and language, heavily indebted to their agents and rely on their employers for food, shelter and pay. How we manage the presence of foreign workers in Singapore reflects the character of our society.

    Jan 13, 2015
  • link facebook
  • link twitter
  • link whatsapp
  • link email