Tthe dorms in which migrant workers from Singapore live, until recently, were almost hidden. The vast steel buildings are mainly on the outskirts of the city, hidden within industrial estates, away from the skyscrapers and luxury hotels of the city-state.
Inside, the men who work hard to build Singapore's infrastructure sleep in bunks, huddled in rooms with up to 20 people. The largest dormitory complex houses up to 24,000 workers.
In the past few weeks, as the coronavirus torn by the premises, its unsanitary and overcrowded conditions quickly became the subject of international attention. Singapore, recently praised through its gold standard approach to testing and screening, it now demonstrates the dangers of neglecting marginalized communities and the vulnerability of nations to a second wave of infections.
On Wednesday, the number of cases exceeded 10,000. This compares to just 200 infections recorded on March 15, when his outbreak appeared to be almost under control. Almost all of the new reports involve migrant workers.
Last week, the country extended a partial closure that was introduced in early April, with people instructed to stay indoors as long as possible. All migrant workers have been instructed not to leave their dormitories and instead receive food delivered by the authorities.
"It looks like we're in a prison. [It is] very difficult. [There is] too hot in the room, ”says A, who asked to remain anonymous, fearing that he might suffer repercussions from talking to the media. Outside, the sound of ambulance sirens could be heard, he adds. None of the hundreds of people who live on his floor have had positive results.
When the coronavirus outbreak in China started to increase in January, it was feared that Singapore, an important regional business center, would be especially vulnerable. The country acted quickly to minimize the risk of transmission: border restrictions were introduced, an exhaustive contract tracking program and a residential quarantine system were rigorously applied. The tests were also done free of charge for everyone. The country, which avoided shutdown measures throughout March, appeared to have contained the virus.
But advocacy groups say little attention was paid to migrant workers who, despite the pandemic, continued to live indoors and spent hours a day traveling in the back of crowded trucks to and from construction sites. “The way workers were stacked [on the back of lorries], it was like the way goats are piled up when they are taken to a slaughterhouse, ”says B, a second worker, who also asked to be anonymous.
Activists say they raised concerns about the virus's risks to migrant workers as early as February. In March, the Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) campaign group said the risk of an outbreak in that community was "undeniable".
When the groups started to emerge, the government removed 7,000 workers, mainly people who do essential jobs, such as working at power plants. About 293,000 remain housed in such facilities. Officials say they will prioritize relocation of the elderly. Cleaning services have been increased to improve hygiene, officials say, and meals are also being delivered to prevent workers from using community kitchens.
The outbreak brought to light the evident inequality in Singapore, which relies heavily on a workforce of around a million migrant workers to build its famous skyscrapers and clean up its glittering malls. Most traveled to the country of Bangladesh, India and other countries in South Asia, hoping to send money home. Their lifestyle contrasts sharply with the country's wealthy elite and financial workers.
Kokila Annamalai, a local activist who supports migrant workers, fears that the spread of Covid-19 in the dorms has fanned the flames of xenophobia and racism. She points to comments made online and in the media. "Upon [the view that] & # 39; it is their fault that they are not clean and their eating habits & # 39; and things like that, there is also an almost worse mentality of & # 39; they are increasing our numbers and it makes us look bad on the world stage, and they should go home & # 39 ;, "she said.
While such comments were condemned by Singapore's Home Affairs and Law Minister Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam, activists say the official messages were also useless. Workers were asked to “be responsible”, wear face masks at all times, report symptoms to the dorm operators and stay at least one meter apart.
A recent study by Mohan Dutta, a professor at Massey University in New Zealand, suggests that such guidance is often impractical. The overwhelming majority of the roughly 100 workers surveyed said they were unable to maintain that distance all the time. More than half described their rooms as unhygienic.
Only Last week, workers reported that they did not have enough soap to wash their hands.
"I had no idea that I would have to live like this"
Workers are generally reluctant to voice complaints. Most incur huge debts to work in Singapore, often finding out on arrival that they will be paid less than promised. A typical salary is around $ 500-750 (£ 285 to £ 425) per month. They are required to have temporary work permits, but they are tied to the employer, making them extremely vulnerable to exploitation.
B sold his family's land and took out loans to pay an agency around $ 7,000 to work in Singapore, where he hoped to earn a high salary. As the eldest son, he is responsible for supporting his extended family, as well as his own wife and children. He knew he would be forced to work hard in Singapore, but his body was not prepared for the long hours of heavy work on construction sites. He did not expect him to live, initially, in a container with eight others. "[I] I had no idea that I would have to live like this and feel so much pain, ”he said.
Now, about a decade later, he says he is at least fortunate enough to share a dorm with just 12 people – less than many of his colleagues and a contrast to the previous room, which had virtually no natural light. Also shares a room with 12 other people. The heat is so suffocating that everyone sleeps on the floor, he says. He is afraid to use ordinary bathrooms, which are unclean.
Many in Singapore are supportive of the workers. “They deserve more. They deserve what every Singaporean deserves ”, says William Lai, a photographer. "I don't know what's going on in these people's minds [who blame workers] … It's not their fault. They don't want to be affected by this. "
In a speech this week, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that migrant workers will be treated in the same way as Singaporeans: "We will take care of your health, your well-being and your livelihood". Almost all infected migrant workers have only mild symptoms, he added.
Dutta believes that the crisis could present an opportunity to reform the way migrant workers are treated, but added that small adjustments would not be enough. "Substantial changes are needed in the way Singapore looks at migrant workers, what the rights of migrant workers are and how they are able to advocate for their own health and well-being," says Dutta.
B says that, for a start, the dormitories of migrant workers must be more strictly controlled, with limits on the number of workers allowed per room and bathroom. "It is not as if Singapore cannot regulate it."
"This entire city is built on our work and our hard work," he adds. "It shows what you need to know about the culture we bring and how our culture makes up the city's clean, shiny facade."
Workers, he adds, do not expect special kindness, only their basic labor rights.
Additional reporting by Redwan Ahmed