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Singaporean migrant workers are still living in a Covid-19 lockdown

Thousands of Singaporean migrant workers live in shared hostels across the country.
In 2020, Singapore was hit by a series of coronavirus outbreaks, centered around hostels where thousands of Singaporean migrant workers live. Matters have dropped significantly, but most men are still not allowed to leave except to go to work. This is one of the longest periods of imprisonment that anyone in the world has to face.

“It’s prison life. It’s prisoner life.”

Sharif came to Singapore in 2008. His wife was pregnant at the time and the book stall he ran in Bangladesh was closed.

He has made a living here for the past 13 years, but from early 2020 he knows the four walls of his hostel and the construction site where he works.

They and about 300,000 others are barred from mingling with the general public. Last week, the Singapore government said it would allow a handful of workers to go out in a “pilot scheme”.

“I appreciate the experience,” he says. “But I can’t be too happy about this news. Workers are only allowed to go to a certain place for a certain amount of time.”

Sharif was not among those selected for the scheme. Sitting in the back of the truck that takes him to work, he often gets a glimpse of the city and its people, who have never been subject to the same restrictions.

Picture of Sharif in happy days.
“It’s very painful for me when I see everyone outside happy,” he told the BBC in a video call.

“They’re eating out, shopping, meeting their friends. And I think, ‘Why isn’t it me? Did I make this corona virus?’

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He spends most of his free time lying on the edge of his bed, either talking to his family or writing prose and poetry in both English and Bengali.

He says that night is the time when things are hardest. Men often walk in the hallways or try to sleep on the ground outside.

“I go to bed and I can’t sleep. How can I sleep? I need fresh light, I need fresh oxygen,” he says.

district of Little India in Singapore is a small slice of home for many migrant workers
district of Little India in Singapore is a small slice of home for many migrant workers

Are we animals?


On the first day of the pilot scheme, the BBC was invited to Singapore’s Little India neighborhood.

Fifty workers were allowed to spend four hours in their hostels without supervision.

Singapore’s Little India district is a small piece of home for many of the country’s migrant workers.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) called it a “milestone”.

Two men were presented to reporters at a major Hindu temple in Singapore.

One of them, Pekrasami Moruganantham from India, told the gathering that he was “very happy to be out” and “very grateful to the Singapore government and mother for taking care of us”.

Speaking to the press.
Since the onset of the epidemic, 58 deaths have been reported in Singapore’s population of 5.7 million.

The country’s success in suppressing the virus has given Singaporeans a long history of freedom over the past year and a half.

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But even when the sanctions were their toughest and the country was locked down, no healthy person in Singapore was ever banned from leaving home.

For example, the practice of social distance was encouraged. But not for those living in hostels.

“The collective life and working conditions of migrant workers in dormitories put them at greater risk of infection and the formation of large clusters,” said Dr Tan Si Lang, Singapore’s Minister of Manpower, in February.

Dr Tan rejected an interview with the BBC, but in a statement a spokesman for the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said the policy of keeping workers in their hostels “protects the health of our migrant workers. And to reduce the risk of further shipments. “

Half of Singapore’s migrant workers were positive.
How an epidemic exposed Singapore’s inequality.
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For Sharif, it feels like he is being punished instead of protected.

“Everyone in the community is allowed to go out. All of these people are expected to follow the rules of social distance, but they don’t think we can do that,” he says.

“When I look at the law only for migrant workers, I think, ‘Aren’t we human? Or are we animals? Don’t we understand? Are we so illiterate?’ ‘

A wake-up call

The men in the hostel – mostly from South Asian countries – do important manual work here.

They build the country’s roads, bridges and apartments. In return, they are able to send good money back to their families.

The visit – also from Bangladesh – came in 2017. He is 25 years old, earns less than 50 750 a month (S $ 1000 £ 400) and maintains air conditioning units.

Arrived in Singapore in 2017.
He spent about 7 7,500 on agency fees to get to Singapore.

“We are working tirelessly for the country,” he said. “We’re making everything, we’re doing everything for you people.”

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“We are human beings like you, like everyone in the community. We want our dignity to return.”

But living in a hostel usually means sharing a room with up to 30 people and sharing your bathroom, cooking and entertainment space by the hundreds.

These conditions led to a major outbreak of Covid 19 in hostels in March 2020. Larger groups mean Singapore is almost untouched by the virus and has been shut down across the island for two months.

It provoked former Singapore Ambassador to the United Nations Tommy Koh to recently reprimand the government.

“We must use this as a wake-up call,” said Mr Koh. Should.”

But the Singapore government has always been open about separating hostel residents from everyone else in the country.

They have different visas, work under different labor laws and the authorities do not pretend that these people have the same rights as other foreigners who do white collar jobs in the city.

Migrant workers in Singapore’s dormitories told the BBC

they were scared for the future in April 2020.
When asked about the current situation by the BBC, MOM declined to provide any details.

Instead, he said, he is “always mindful and aware of the need to better support the mental well-being of our migrant workers” and that he provides counseling services and a Offer helpline.

Professor Jeremy Lim, director of global health at the Suu Kyi Hawk School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore, says denying workers freedom is one of the few benefits to public health at the moment.

“I would say that the concerns of the Covid 19 are largely suppressed.

“They have been vaccinated, they know the safe distance, they wear masks. So what else can we do?”

“Speaking as a public health professional, we have to acknowledge that there are limits. Now is the time to focus on the mental health of these workers because they are really, really struggling right now.”

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