COVID-19, Migrant Containment and Moral Exclusion in Singapore

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COVID-19, Migrant Containment, and Moral Exclusion in Singapore

Author: Andrew Lee, Independent Researcher, recently completed his Master’s from the Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at

Fieldsite: This report is based on 6 weeks of visits to migrant worker dormitories in Singapore with an NGO I volunteer with. I conducted a participative-observation ethnography during my visits to these dormitories.

When COVID-19 hit Singapore, the island city-state was initially lauded for its management and containment of the virus. About 2 months into the pandemic, Singapore’s low-waged male migrant population, the majority of whom were living in dormitories that were sequestered and secluded away from the city, started to see a surge in contracted cases. Daily numbers rose from a few hundred to above a thousand, the majority of whom were male migrant workers who laboured as construction or shipyard workers. Local media reports started to separate the numbers into two distinct categories: community cases and non-community cases – the former signifying mainly Singapore residents, the latter, foreign workers living in dormitories. This separation is a clear indication of the way the city-state views its migrant workers – apart and excluded from the community.

The fact that the low-waged migrant population was hit the hardest came as no surprise to many involved in advocating for the rights of these workers. NGOs and activists have long highlighted human and labour rights abuses faced by migrant workers in Singapore. Late, low, or non- payment of salaries, forced repatriation, recruitment fees, employee documentation manipulation are just the tip of issues that workers encounter in the first-world city. However, a large reason why workers’ dormitories became the epicentre of COVID-19 is their overcrowded living conditions. Workers are crammed into small rooms, with about 16-30 men sharing a living space and often just one toilet.

Singapore entered into lockdown in April and as COVID-19 cases among workers continued to rise, a difference in physical mobility was drawn between those in the community and the migrants. This was done to prevent spillover of virus transmissions within the “community”. While residents were allowed out of their homes to do their grocery shopping and to buy meals, the low-waged migrant population were confined to their accommodation. All workers were isolated in their dormitories or privately rented rooms. Their movement was restricted to their living spaces. Workers weren’t allowed out to buy essential items nor were they allowed to cook in the shared kitchens. Instead, employers or dormitory operators were responsible for providing catered meals to workers. However, there were reports that many workers were given badly prepared or undercooked meals. This was highlighted to NGOs and migrant caseworkers. Images of the food they were given went viral on social media, becoming the subject of much public discussion.


Figure 1: Undercooked and stale meals. Source: Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics
Figure 2: Workers received food that was unpalatable and badly prepared. Source: Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics

In response, organisations working on migrant rights and welfare organised to address the living conditions and emotional toll on workers during the pandemic.

Grassroots response

With workers practically imprisoned, migrant worker advocacy and grassroots groups organised to aid this population. Funds were raised to deliver meals, care packages, and other necessities to workers in dormitories. These included hand sanitisers, face masks, packet drinks, instant coffee, tea, and dry food such as biscuits or chocolate among others. An NGO also raised funds to buy pre-paid mobile sim cards for workers to use to maintain contact with family members in their home countries.  I am a volunteer at one of these groups and helped out in my free time away from work to pack and deliver these packages to dormitories.

In addition, as the numbers of COVID-19 contracted cases among the migrant worker population soared, healthcare professionals were struggling to communicate with these workers who were mainly from Tamil Nadu in India and Bangladesh. Workers spoke limited English. Doctors and nurses who couldn’t speak Tamil or Bangla were struggling to understand how their patients were feeling and couldn’t conduct the necessary contact tracing. In efforts to help healthcare professionals with translation, a Bengali speaking doctor designed a website with a list of frequently asked questions and their audio translation playable beside. Soon after, a similar Tamil translation website was built by Tamil-speaking Singaporeans to ease translation issues among those in healthcare.

Figure 3: Care packages containing masks, sanitisers, food, and books

The organisation I am involved in worked to sort and pack essential and other food items including dates eaten before breaking fast during Ramadan for distribution. Together with other volunteers, we included packages for at least 1000 workers for each distribution. We started off our deliveries to factory-converted dormitories, which were industrial or warehouse developments that have been partially converted to dormitories. Many of these dormitories were missed out as the public was more focused on mega-dormitories that became the centres of COVID-19 infection. With the help of workers, we identified several of these dormitories that had fallen through the cracks in requiring care and aid.

Our deliveries to these dormitories were fairly straightforward. We hired a truck to transport the packages to these dormitories. At these sites, security was minimal. We were not allowed to step into the dormitory and workers were not allowed out of the compound. We unloaded the packages at the entrance of the compounds and handed them over to the workers for distribution among themselves. After some conversation enquiring over conditions, their wellbeing, and whether they required anything else, we returned to the office.

Figure 4: Distribution to a factory converted into a dormitory
Figure 5: Distribution to a factory converted into a dormitory

Excluded Bodies Contained

In April, more worker dormitories were identified as clusters of infection. Several of these dorms were gazetted by the government as “Isolation Areas”. As a result, workers were prevented further access to recreational facilities and movement between housing blocks was prohibited. Workers could only occupy their living spaces and the limited areas surrounding it. Moreover, the police force, private security, and army personnel were deployed in these dormitories to surveil and ensure proper safe distancing measures are adhered to.

In one of our deliveries in May 2020 on the eve of Eid, I had the chance to enter one of the heavily policed Isolation Areas. It was a mega-dormitory housing close to at least 5,000 workers in the northernmost part of Singapore. When we got there, the dormitory’s own hired security personnel had closed off the gates, only allowing registered visitors with the police force to enter. It must be noted that it is a common sight in Singapore to have security guards residing over these dormitories not as a form of protection given to residents as seen in condominiums or private residences, but as a form of surveillance to keep workers in check and in order. We had some issues with entry as not all our 4 vehicle plate numbers including the truck we hired for delivery were registered. Entry was first refused to some of us but after some extensive negotiation with the security personnel and contact with the police force, did they allow us through. Nonetheless, it showed the strict security measures in place to restrict migrant bodies within the compound and to secure the “community population” from viral transmissions.

It was close to another kilometre drive before we reached the dormitory blocks. When we got out of our vehicles, I was first greeted by the stench of the sewer. Opened metallic grills covered the drains. It seemed like the sewage ran beneath the road under us which separated housing blocks on each side. I looked up and saw a few workers curiously leaning over the railings of the blocks about 5 storeys high. Some workers laid on the floor of the corridors in groups or individually. Those were the only spaces they could occupy within the compound besides their shared rooms. They wore faces that looked bored, tired, and drawn out – worn out from being caged in.

I was then immediately greeted by familiar shouting that I was subjected to in the military where I had served two years of compulsory national service. Workers were lining up to collect rations on the ground floor of one of the blocks where the shared kitchen, eating, and laundry area was. Army personnel who weren’t in their uniform but a green polo-tee wearing Personal Protective Equipment were yelling at workers to maintain the proper 1-metre distance when queuing. The army personnel threatened workers to send them back to their rooms without the rations and called them “f***ing idiots” if they didn’t stand behind the yellow safe distancing markings on the ground. The truck driver whom we hired remarked to me that conditions here were “worse than prison”. I was uneased and angered at how workers – some of whom I knew – were spoken to. It was degrading and demeaning.

Figure 6: Inside a migrant dormitory Isolation Area

A police patrol car was parked beside one of the blocks and a team of 3-4 armed police officers patrolled up and down the road that separated the blocks. The presence of heavy security was deemed necessary by the government to ensure workers were disciplined and observed quarantine and lockdown rules. However, it seemed more a deterrence against potential riots with the 2013 Little India riots still fresh in their minds. Workers had spent at least two months contained in their overcrowded living spaces, and there was worry on the side of the government that frustrations may escalate into a riot in the dormitories.

Several of the army personnel approached us to ask where we were from and gave us instructions. The first was to keep our face shields and masks on at all times. The second was that we were not allowed to interact with the workers for the sake of our own health security reasons. Even though this block of dormitories where we were was declared safe from COVID, the army personnel-in-charge told us “we don’t know if the workers are contaminated and we want just want you to be safe”. The third was to leave the boxes of the packages on the ground by the blocks and the workers would collect them independently. We could take a group picture with the workers – but with social distancing. They then proceeded to inspect our packages and made sure we only gave them dry food on top of the essential items we were providing.

We unloaded the care packages and proceeded to lay them out on the ground at the foot of the three dormitory blocks. We called workers we knew living in these blocks to pick them up. They were sanitised transactions. I was disappointed I couldn’t speak to some of the workers I knew living there. I could only wave and smile at them behind my face mask and shield when they came to collect the packages.

Figure 7: Workers collecting care packages

The manner in which the workers were treated and spoken of/to was dehumanising and degrading. They were not seen as a population more vulnerable to infection due to ill-treatment and poor policy planning. Rather, they were perceived as a dangerous population and their bodies a potential threat that needed to be controlled and contained. They were ‘dirty’ bodies and with whom boundaries had to be maintained to protect the purity of the community. Though their basic biopolitical needs were provided for during the pandemic, they were subject to unwarranted verbal abuse and heavy security in these dormitories.

This only heightened the uncertainties and insecurities many workers faced as they were out of jobs during the pandemic. The government-mandated that employers must continue to pay the basic salary of workers (around USD$300-400 a month). However, the basic salaries aren’t enough. Workers often relied on overtime paid work for extra income to remit home and to pay high-interest loans they owed for recruitment fees to work in Singapore. Other workers I have been keeping in contact with have told me they haven’t received any salary or they were only paid half of the basic amount. When Cyclone Amphan hit the southern regions of Bangladesh, many of my friends’ families and villages were destroyed and only amplified the desperation and helplessness they felt.

Continued Moral Exclusion

The pandemic had shifted the discourse on how Singapore should care for the needs of migrant workers. The government had admitted to shortcomings under heavy local criticism and international media attention and has promised to provide better care for its workers. Care had been found wanting and the scope of their needs broadened to beyond the bare life of basic needs met in functional but crowded dormitories.

In early June, the government had announced that it will build better and less dense dormitories to house workers in the coming years. These dormitories would be situated close to some residential areas. The announcement, however, was met with xenophobic and racist comments made by the general public on Facebook.

Figure 8: Comments from the public on Facebook.

These comments protested against the government’s decision to build dormitories near residential areas citing “cultural” and “hygienic” reasons. They detested the idea of having migrant workers living near them, saying these workers don’t fit into society, that they’re criminals, or that dormitories built near residential areas will decrease the value of their property.

What these comments have revealed is that as a society, we still have yet or rather, are unwilling to accept workers into our moral community, choosing to marginalise and keep “these” workers Other-ed and at a distance. Even though social-physical distancing has become our new vocation as we prepare ourselves for a post-covid world, we continually apply an exclusive distance to migrant workers who have laboured to build the infrastructure that locals enjoy and live in. This continued moral exclusion of migrants from the community has been the result of decades of urban segregation. The distance placed between “us” and “them” has prevented many from extending recognition to migrant labour as deserving of space in our community.

At the time of writing, Singapore has just eased lockdown regulations. We have entered “Phase 2” of transitioning out of lockdown. This meant more shops and services were opened and the “community” is allowed to dine in at food establishments in small groups. The government’s rationale for easing restrictions was due to a fall in community cases which number between 1-15 new cases daily, and a lower infection incidence rate among migrant workers in dormitories, which were still in the hundreds each day.

It seems that the public has been desensitised to the high numbers of infection rates among workers. We have disregarded infections among workers as a whole separate distinct issue, absolving and morally distancing ourselves from any responsibility to their health. For instance, upon the daily announcement of COVID-19 cases in Singapore, my parents would only check the number of “community cases”, and if community numbers were low, it signalled good news. Additionally, Phase 2 and even the later Phase 3 still doesn’t mean free mobility for workers. Workers are mandated to stay in their dormitories on rest days (mainly Sundays) even when they’re back to work. Many controls have been set in place to regulate and contain dormitory workers’ movements, controlling the time and locations they can visit to minimise the risk of “cross-infections with the general community”

While we had the opportunity in the crisis to expand our borders of the community, our language had failed us. The unfortunate reporting of cases into two separate streams (community and dormitory cases), officially counted as such, missed the opportunity to change the narrative that has persistently distanced and inoculated audiences from migrant workers. It has cemented and fortified further the boundaries between community and migrant labourers. With the talk of a “new normal”, many questions are raised in how everyday life would be. We need to ask questions that broaden our community spaces to include those marginalised and excluded into our normal. How do we include workers as part of this new normal? How do we include workers’ struggles as a constitutive part of our own national struggle? How do we bridge a distance that many are unwilling to close?