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Covid-19: Challenging Time for Process Workers in Dormitories

ASPRI2021_ED03_Pix01The Coronavirus outbreak in Singapore in 2020 had a devastating effect on the process industry. As infections spread rapidly across the foreign workers (FWs) community living in dormitories, plant construction and maintenance service providers had difficulty deploying workers for jobs.

Dormitories were the primary residence for Singapore’s FWs. Of the 323,000 FWs - 287,800 in construction and the remaining 30,000 in marine, process and service - about 200,000 of them were living in purpose-built dormitories (PBDs), 95,000 in factory converted dormitories (FCDs) and the remaining in on-site housing or construction temporary quarters (CTQs).

The first cluster of infected migrant workers was identified at S11 Dormitory @ Punggol in March. By 1 May, 38 out of 43 large PBDs and at least 20 smaller FCDs had Covid-19 clusters, including ASPRI-Westlite Papan.

It was a harrowing time for ASPRI members. While their capacity to keep working was impaired, they had to stump up extra costs to house their workers and provide their meals and keep tabs on their movement. Depending on the state of health of the workers, they could be housed in the dormitories, community facilities, former schools, HDB blocks or hospitals.

The beginning
Better known as Covid-19, the coronavirus was first reported by China on 31 December 2019 after a cluster was found in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Being highly contagious, the virus soon spread to other provinces in China and beyond.

The first recorded case outside of China was reported in Thailand on 13 January 2020. Singapore had its first confirmed case 10 days later, prompting the government to act.

On 22 January, the government announced the formation of a Multi-Ministry Task Force to be chaired jointly by Minister of Health (MOH), Gan Kim Yong and then Minister for National Development, Lawrence Wong.

ASPRI began liaising closely with the two ministries, the Economic Development Board, plant owners and the ASPRI-Westlite dormitory operator Centurion Corporation, to ensure a smooth flow of information to affected members.

Just over a week later, on 30 January, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the outbreak “constituted a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC)”.

WHO’s declaration sent alarm bells ringing across the process, marine and construction industries. Up until then, they were still hoping that the virus could be contained.

Dormitory operators had begun to implement enhanced safety measures as early as January, following guidance from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). According to reports, the Ministry was said to have sent almost daily updates and advisories to operators, including a directive requiring dormitories licensed under the Foreign Employee Dormitory Act (FEDA) to set aside at least 10 quarantine rooms to allow for quick isolation of close contacts of infected workers.

Subsequently, non-essential facilities in the dormitories such as gyms and TV rooms were closed. Mealtimes and recreational hours were staggered. Intermixing between blocks was stopped.

On weekends, MOM officers were assigned to advise migrant workers to observe safe distancing measures and to disperse big groups that were gathering at popular hangouts.

In a statement in parliament on 4 May, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo recalled, “a day after the first confirmed case in Singapore, MOM reached out to dormitory operators to be more vigilant and to step up hygiene”.

Materials in the workers’ native languages were distributed to encourage them to take steps to protect themselves.

Ministers visit dormitories in early February
To see how preparations of the isolation arrangements were being made, Mrs Teo and Mr Wong, visited a dormitory in Tuas on 6 February. While there, they indicated there would be tighter monitoring of the FW community mostly living in dormitories.

By then, travel restrictions were imposed on those coming into Singapore. Returning Singapore residents and long-term pass holders, and those with a recent travel history to China, were required to observe a 14-day Leave of Absence (LOA). Employers would have to inform the MOM of their scheduled arrival. The FW’s levy would be waived for the LOA period and employers would receive S$100 a day for every worker during that period.

On 7 February, one day after the ministers’ dormitory visit, Singapore’s crisis alert level (DORSCON) was raised to orange. On the same day, the first migrant worker infection at an aerospace construction site was reported.

At the beginning of March with just over 100 coronavirus infections, Singapore was held up as a model for Covid-19 response. In a world ravaged by the fast escalating virus, which was growing in numbers and severity prompting WHO to declare it a pandemic on 11 March, Singapore received praise for its aggressive contact tracing, strict quarantine procedures and measured travel restrictions and world-leading testing rates.

However, infections began to spread across the FW’s dormitories. The first cluster of FW infection in dormitories was reported at an S11 dormitory, followed soon after by the Westlite Toh Guan dormitory pushing Singapore’s infection rates upwards. On 30 March, it was reported that Singapore's total number of cases was 926.

Inter-agency set up as partial lockdown kicks in
On April 7, a Circuit Breaker, or partial lockdown, was declared by the government. On the same day, an Inter-agency Taskforce was set up, comprising officers from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), the Home Team, Ministry of Health (MOH), Ministry of Communication and Information (MCI), Ministry of National Development and several agencies, to provide support to foreign workers and dormitory operators.

A three-pronged strategy was taken by the government to contain the spread of the virus in the dormitories where clusters had formed, prevent the spread in those with no cluster, and move out and test all workers who were still needed for essential work.

Phase 1 involved getting the basics right, such as introducing safe-distancing measures and gazetting certain dormitories as isolation areas; Phase 2 focused on medical operations, fleshing out medical support plans and building up infrastructure and personnel; and

Phase 3 was on recovery. This involved building up community recovery facilities and housing recovered workers in suitable accommodation to minimise the risks of recurrent transmissions, and to find a way to allow recovered and infected workers to go back to work safely.

To implement these strategies effectively, the Task Force had the support of Forward Assurance Support (FAST) teams; a holistic Medical Support Plan and the cooperation of dormitory operators and employers to improve hygiene and provide necessities. About 200 FAST teams were deployed to help with the enormous undertaking. Nearly 3,000 staff supplemented by private sector recruits were soon involved in looking after the health and well-being of the migrant workers.

On 9 April, MOM declared the S11 Dormitory @ Punggol and Westlite in Toh Guan as isolation areas to prevent further transmission of infections. About 20,000 workers were quarantined in their rooms for 14 days.

It was reported that 202 of the 287 new Covid-19 cases were linked to clusters in FWs dormitories - the highest single-day figure since the pandemic began. The total number of coronavirus patients reached 1,910.

To stem the rise in infections, communal cooking in the dormitories was stopped and suitable meals were delivered in a timely manner to the workers. Use of communal toilets was scheduled to prevent mixing and toilets were kept clean.

Dormitory operators were also required to track the movements in and out of their facilities, set up barriers to prevent mixing of workers between blocks and levels and to monitor their health.

By then medical posts were being set up at eight gazetted dormitories to provide medical touchpoints at all 43 dormitories, as well as in various industrial areas.

More than 10,000 workers in essential services were moved out and progressively tested so they could continue to work safely. Workers in dormitories gazetted as Isolation Areas were not moved as they would pose a higher risk of infecting others. Further movement in and out of dormitories was stopped to prevent cross-infections in both directions. Non-essential workers were not allowed to work.

On 19 April 2020, MOM issued another advisory to employers who had employees residing in a Factory Converted Dormitory (FCD), Construction Temporary Quarter (CTQ), or a Temporary Occupation Licence quarter, informing them that they were not permitted to move their employees to another residence unless instructed by the Ministry.

The second phase of comprehensive medical support was kicked into gear with the Regional Healthcare Systems deploying teams of doctors, nurses and technicians to each of the 43 PBDs. They worked with the FAST teams to set up on-site isolation facilities and organise safe conveyance of dormitory residents from one location to another.

The cost of all tests and treatment was borne by the Government. Dormitory operators also received financial support from the government to defray various costs such as manpower, cleaning, maintenance and utilities which spiked especially after the lockdown of some 300,000 workers in dormitories.

Not all blocks or rooms in dormitories that had clusters were equally affected. The virus’ rapid spread across different dormitories was attributed to infected members taking breaks together, sharing food and utensils at worksites. During their off-days the workers from different dormitories had also gathered to socialise, shop, cook, eat and relax together.

But most of the infected workers had mild symptoms, likely because they tend to be young.

As Manpower Minister Teo noted in her 4 May Ministerial statement, “when asked if they are unwell, even after testing positive, some workers say they feel fine”. Many were uncovered only because of active case-finding or swab exercises, she added.

Stop work order for all workers residing in dormitories
As the virus continued to spread, an order went out on 21 April to FWs in all dormitories to stop work until 4 May. This was subsequently extended. By then, 28 out of the 43 PBDs had known clusters. There were at least 14 clusters at smaller FCDs.

On 25 April, it was reported that there were 897 new cases, with 853 being FWs living in dormitories. It brought the total number of confirmed cases island-wide to 12,075. Just a week before that, the number was 5,050. The report also said 12 had died of complications due to Covid-19 and 952 had fully recovered and were discharged. Four had died from other causes.

It was also reported that the government had changed its approach to caring for Covid-19 patients by treating 9 out of 10 cases in community facilities instead of acute hospitals. The more acute ones were treated in hospitals with separate facilities for Covid-19 patients. The three community isolation facilities for foreign workers with mild symptoms were set up at the D'Resort NTUC chalet in Pasir Ris, Singapore Expo, and Changi Exhibition Centre, which could hold almost 4,000 in total.

For the time being, some of the recovering workers were being housed in more than 30 sites including vacant HDB blocks, former schools, army camps and sports halls. On 1 May, it was reported that 38 out of 43 large PBDs and at least 20 smaller FCDs had Covid-19 clusters. Dormitories with Covid-19 clusters had been placed under quarantine from early April.

For companies resuming operations after the Circuit Breaker period, all Safe Management Measures had to be in place before operations could be resumed at the workplace.

On 30 May before the reopening from the Circuit Breaker, MOM had issued a range of measures for dormitory operators, employers and workers living in dormitories and other living quarters to comply.

In particular, foreign workers accommodation operators were required to track residents’ movement in and out of their premises, set up physical barriers to prevent mixing of workers between blocks and levels, monitor residents' health and set aside on-site isolation facilities.

Coronavirus pandemic to change foreign worker landscape in Singapore
New dormitories planned
By June, definite progress was being made. More workers were being cleared after they were tested negative or were tested positive but had fully recovered and been discharged.

The taskforce began work on the next phase. In a media statement on 1 June, MOM said, “With the Covid-19 situation at the dormitories under control, and more migrant workers recovering or being cleared to resume work, the Inter-agency Taskforce is now working with dormitory operators and employers on the housing arrangements for these workers.”

New accommodation arrangement was necessary as MOM had aimed to reduce the density of workers in the dormitories. Thus, the government would be implementing a programme “to build additional dormitories with higher standards over the coming months and years”.

On the same day, the Ministry also announced the third phase of efforts that involved building up community recovery facilities (CRFs) to house workers who had recovered in suitable accommodation “to minimise the risks of recurrent transmissions”. The recovering workers were housed in sites such as army camps and sports halls, vacant HDB blocks and private apartments awaiting redevelopment, which had to be returned to their original uses or for redevelopment.

Short to medium term accommodations
Three types of accommodation will be built to accommodate some 60,000 workers. New Quick Build Dormitories (QBDs), temporary structures that can be constructed quite quickly in a modular form, will be ready by the end of 2020 to house around 25,000 workers. Another 25,000 will be housed in temporary retrofitted unused state properties, including former schools and vacant factories. The rest will be accommodated in additional Construction Temporary Quarters (CTQs) to be built by contractors to house their workers at the worksites to cut down on transportation needs.

Longer term accommodations
The government has planned for new PBDs to house up to 100,000 workers to replace the short- to medium-term housing. It aims to have about 11 such new PBDs ready over the next one to two years. All of them will have amenities such as minimarts, barber services, indoor recreation facilities and will have blocks well-spaced out to ensure good ventilation. Workers will also have ready access to medical care and support.

These PBDs will also have the capacity to decant workers from the existing dormitories, for them to be upgraded to meet the new standards.

Piloting of improved standards and dormitory operating model
MOM said that in addition to expanding capacity to house migrant workers, government agencies were developing a set of specifications for these new dormitories. They would cover the design, facilities, management and regulation of the dormitories, and “will factor in social interaction and disease response needs”.

It said the plan was to “make dormitory living and design more resilient to public health risks including pandemics, with improved living standards that are benchmarked both domestically and internationally”. They would include feedback from relevant stakeholders in addition to lessons learnt from the current COVID pandemic.

The QBDs will be used to pilot an improved set of standards

MOM also said that the government would also be studying the possibility of “developing the new PBDs on a different model compared to the present system, where currently land is released for the commercial operators to bid, build or operate”.

Besides improvements to physical standards, MOM said it was “equally important to uplift the capabilities of dormitory operators and make adjustments to the daily living habits of the dormitory residents”. The pilot, it said, should instil a new level of discipline on safe living within dormitories.

It also expected that these additional and improved housing arrangements would “come at a cost”.

Resuming work safely
By 11 August, all 323,000 workers in dormitories were tested and all 43 PBDs except for 17 blocks in six dormitories which served as quarantine facilities were cleared of Covid-19. It was a monumental task involving close to 3,000 officers, including 1,000 from MOM.

As the dormitories shifted into a sustainable model focusing on safe reopening, safe transition and safe nation, additional safeguards were put in place.

A multi-layered approach has been adopted to minimise the risk of new infections.

Workers are required to self-monitor their health. They have to report their temperature as well as any acute respiratory illness symptoms through an app, the FWMOMCare, twice a day. This would enable those with symptoms to be identified and cared for immediately.

The number of migrant workers who reported sick at the medical posts will be tracked as an early indication of any possible infections. Wastewater from higher risk dormitories will also be monitored for traces of the COVID-19 virus.

In addition, testing of workers have been stepped up. Except for those who had recovered from a previous Covid-19 infection, all other foreign workers are required to go for a swab test every 14 days.

A transitionary medical support plan has also been rolled out to help prevent and manage any future outbreaks. It involves setting up onsite medical centres and mobile clinical teams complemented by after-hours telemedicine support.

By putting in necessary safeguards, any potential infections among the migrant workers can be promptly picked up and immediate action taken to minimise the risk of a major outbreak.

But before workers are given the green light to return to work, certain preconditions must be met. They must be free from the coronavirus, must not be on stay-home notice and must be staying in dormitories cleared of Covid-19. They must also have installed the TraceTogether app. Having met these conditions, their AccessCode status on the SGWorkPass platform will then be turned to green, allowing them to resume work. Approval for resumption of work also has to be sought from the relevant authorities.

Singapore’s ability to bring the initial high infection numbers down was attributed to its approach in isolating first those workers who were most at risk and older ones who had other medical conditions. At a Covid-19 webinar hosted by The Straits Times on 23 July, Prof Dale Fisher, a senior infectious diseases expert at the National University Hospital, said this strategy was “very novel” and had helped to keep dormitory infections down to the low hundreds.

While the worst may be over, the way ahead is pitted with uncertainties. As panellists at the webinar noted, even if a vaccine is made available, it still would not bring an immediate end to the outbreak. A holistic suite of treatments as well as personal responsibility would be needed for some time to reduce the spread.

As workers’ safety is non-negotiable, the industry is trying to find a way to live with the virus and operate profitably. Working with government agencies and key stakeholders, ASPRI will continue to work with its members and plant owners to find workable solutions acceptable to all to allow on-site work to resume safely.

Throughout the ordeal, the government has since the Unity Budget in February progressively provided a range of financial support measures amounting to about S$100 billion to help cushion the impact of COVID-19 on local businesses and their workers.