Inside a foreign workers' dormitory
Occupants of dormitory fined for overcrowding say conditions have improved
Dirty and cramped sleeping areas with clothes strewn all over, garbage littered over the floor, and cockroaches crawling on table tops.
This was the condition of an overcrowded dormitory in Boon Lay.
On Tuesday, dormitory operator KT Mesdorm was fined the maximum $300,000 for housing foreign workers in overcrowded accommodation at its Blue Stars Dormitory.
KT Mesdorm, which pleaded guilty to 30 charges, was the first dormitory operator to be prosecuted and convicted in court under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act.
The dormitory, which was built in 2001, was packed with more than 500 workers over the allowed limit of 4,500.
The Ministry of Manpower yesterday released photos taken last July of the dormitory's poor living conditions, which it said severely compromised the health and well-being of the workers living there.
A spokesman for KT Mesdorm told The New Paper yesterday that it immediately took steps to rectify the living conditions.
"KT Mesdorm acknowledges there were lapses, and we immediately took affirmative steps and rectified the situation and living conditions of the workers," said its spokesman.
He claimed the overcrowding happened because companies had asked it to house their workers on a "temporary basis". But the dormitory now keeps strictly to the stipulated limit.
He added that pest controllers were hired, and that KT Mesdorm actively educates the workers on proper hygienic practices.
TNP visited the Blue Stars Dormitory yesterday.
The premises consist of seven blocks, each six storeys high with about 10 units on each level.
Each unit had its own cooking and dining area, and toilets.
IMPROVED: Mr Amirul Islam (sitting on upper bunk bed), Mr Chinnarao (in orange) and their roommates in their dormitory room. PHOTOS: ISKANDAR ROSSALI
There was also a basketball court, supermarket and remittance centre in the compound.
Shipyard worker Amirul Islam, 27, who arrived from Bangladesh about 10 months ago - which was around the time the dormitory was found to be overcrowded - said conditions have since improved.
"We used to have 16 people in our unit. It was crowded. But now, four people have been shifted out.
"There's more space for everyone now," he said.
His roommate and colleague, Mr Chinnarao, 28, an Indian national, agreed.
"It's much better now. Last time, there even used to be two beds in the dining area. Now, no more," he said.
The living quarters were a far cry from the photographs taken last July.
For example, the living and cooking areas in each unit had been scrubbed clean since.
There was also no litter accumulating at the rubbish chute area, as seen in the photographs.
Mr Rajib Mohammad, 31, also a shipyard worker from Bangladesh, said the occupants do their best to clean the place from time to time.
When shown last July's photographs, Mr Rajib shook his head and said: "I am very unhappy.
"This is done by some people, who are stupid.
"Maybe they get drunk and they anyhow throw their rubbish. But this doesn't happen every day."
Another shipyard worker, Mr Gahil Abdul, 42, who has been living at the dormitory for four years, said he and his fellow occupants take turns cleaning the premises.
"We also don't want to live in a dirty place," he said.
Dorm had 542 more workers than allowed
Dormitory operator KT Mesdorm was convicted of helping three companies breach a work pass condition by housing their foreign workers in overcrowded accommodation in its Blue Stars Dormitory.
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said in a statement yesterday that it conducted an inspection of the dormitory on July 30 last year with the Singapore Civil Defence Force.
Authorities found 5,098 bed spaces occupied by 5,042 foreign workers residing in the dormitory, which was permitted to house only 4,500 workers.
"By intentionally taking in more residents than permitted, KT Mesdorm had caused the infrastructure and amenities in the dormitory to be over-taxed, resulting in overcrowded, unsanitary and unhygienic living conditions," said a MOM spokesman.
MOM also said the companies that had tenancy agreements with KT Mesdorm were not aware of the overcrowding.
Following the inspections, KT Mesdorm took steps to rectify the overcrowding issue and improve the living conditions in the dormitory.
Ms Jeanette Har, director of the well-being department of MOM's foreign manpower management division, said the agency will continue to step up inspections and take stern action where appropriate.
Members of the public who know of persons or employers who contravene the Act can contact MOM at 6438-5122 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Overcrowded dorms have consequences
Overcrowding in dormitories can have grave consequences for both foreign workers and Singaporeans, two migrant workers advocacy groups told The New Paper.
News of Blue Stars Dormitory's $300,000 fine did not come as a surprise to organisation Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).
"Many purpose-built dormitories are run on a commercial basis. If they can make greater profit by cramming in more people, they will try," said TWC2 treasurer Alex Au.
But it is fortunate that the case came to light, as it signals to other dormitory operators that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) strongly frowns upon overcrowding, he added.
The advocacy groups do not have figures of dormitory overcrowding cases here, Mr Au said.
"Workers rarely risk their jobs to be whistleblowers. If employers terminate their contracts, they have to pay the agent fees again if they want to look for another job," he explained.
CLEANED UP: In a check on Blue Stars Dormitory by the Ministry of Manpower last July, cockroaches were found on tabletops and the cooking areas were filthy. PHOTOS: MINISTRY OF MANPOWER
He said living conditions will improve when dormitory operators open their doors for inspection.
"If they wish to establish a good reputation and brand name, they might want to distinguish themselves by saying, 'We have nothing to hide and you can take a look inside because we have decent standards'," said Mr Au.
Although fines and hiring restrictions are appropriate punishments for errant companies, operating costs are still an issue, said Mr Jolovan Wham, a social worker at Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics.
"Instead of increasing the foreign worker levy, the Government should consider encouraging employers to channel more funds towards improving the welfare of workers," he said.
Poor living conditions, such as overcrowding, carry deeper consequences for society as well, the advocacy groups said.
"These conditions affect productivity and the mental alertness of workers. They're closely related to work safety," said Mr Wham.
CLEANED UP (above ) PHOTOS: MINISTRY OF MANPOWER
Mr Au said: "Overcrowding has life and death consequences, and these are totally invisible to the public."
Mr Wham said it is usually a case of "out of sight, out of mind" when it comes to overcrowded foreign worker dormitories here.
"There isn't much awareness about the situation. It's not something that many people know about because these dormitories are situated in remote parts of Singapore," he said.
He added that foreign worker rights are important.
"It is a reflection of who we are as a society. Upholding their dignity is the decent thing to do."