SINGAPORE (Jun 1): Singapore is looking to set up 60,000 additional bed spaces for migrant workers by the end of the year, with another 100,000 to be completed in the next few years.

This is part of the government’s push to reduce the density of migrant worker dormitories and to make them more resilient to public health risks such as pandemics, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said on Monday.

Presently, some migrant workers who recovered from the coronavirus are being housed in floatels, military camps and vacant Housing Development Board flats.

"But these are temporary solutions because eventually these sites will have to be returned to their original users, and therefore we need more sustainable solutions for new dormitory solutions," noted Wong.

The 60,000 spaces to be ready by end of the year includes Quick Build Dormitories - which are semi-permanent structures that can be assembled relatively quickly.

These structures are said to last between two and three years, and will have a combined capacity of 25,000 spaces.

This translates to between 500 to 1,000 workers per hectare, depending on the conditions of the site, the National Development Ministry (MND) and Manpower Ministry (MOM) detailed in a joint statement. 

So far, eight sites have been earmarked to be built by the end of the year. These include land parcels at Kranji, Admiralty, Choa Chu Kang and Tampines. “Th[ese are] non-exhaustive. New sites may be added due to new demands and requirements,” the Ministries added.

Another 25,000 workers will be housed at 36 unused state properties such as former school premises and vacant factories, which will be refurbished.

Some of these premises include the tentages at the National Service Resort and Country Club at Kranji and former schools such as Bedok North Secondary School, Serangoon Junior College, New Town Secondary and Temasek Primary.

Aside from this, the authorities are in talks with contractors on the setting up of Construction Temporary Quarters (CTQ) or makeshift dormitories near the workers’ worksites.

In the long run, the government is looking to build new Purpose-Built Dormitories (PBDs) to house up to 100,000 workers. 

About 11 such PBDs are slated to be up and running in the next two years, the Ministries muse. Workers living here will have ready access to medical care and support, as well as amenities such as minimarts, and barber services. 

Blocks in these compounds will also be spaced out to ensure good ventilation. 

"With these additional PBDs in place, we will also have the capacity to decant workers from the existing dormitories, and to undertake major upgrading to these dormitories to ensure that they meet the new standards," the ministries said. 

Better standards

In addition to expanding housing availability for migrant workers, the government is developing a set of specifications that new dormitories must uphold.

Such standards will cover the design, facilities, management and regulation of dormitories. It will also take into consideration social interactions and disease response needs. 

“In land scare Singapore, dormitories are a practical approach to housing our migrant workers,” MND and MOM’s statement said.

“We aim 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”.

To this end, the government is looking to improve the present standards adopted at dormitories through a pilot project. 

Here, it will increase the living space per resident to more than 6 sq m per resident from the current 4.5 sq m, excluding shared facilities. Residents will sleep on single-deck beds which will be placed 1m apart.

There will also be cap of 10 beds per room. Presently there is no limit on the number of beds but MND and MOM said that there are about 12- 16 beds per room.

More toilets and bathrooms will be built such that there is at least one bathroom, sink and toilet for every five beds, instead of the current ratio of 15 beds.

"While the physical standards are being improved, it is equally important to uplift the capabilities of dormitory operators and make adjustments to the daily living habits of the dormitory residents,” the Covid-19 multi-ministry taskforce said.

Wong noted that this is not the first time that Singapore is improving the standards of its foreign worker dormitories. “New dormitories are better than the older ones and the next batch will achieve even better standards,” he stressed.

"Everyone must do their part to minimise the risk of infection clusters. The pilot will therefore also seek to instil a new level of discipline on safe living within dormitories,” the taskforce added.

For now, the taskforce said it is studying various models of building operations and will provide details once plans are confirmed. 

“There are different models that exists today even in the running of various entities in Singapore. So, we will study what’s the best way of doing it, and eventually come to a decision on how best to progress with this new permanent dorm we’re building,” said Wong.

He noted that a model of consideration is “build to lease”, whereby the government owns the dormitory that is leased to a separate entity such as a private entity, a Voluntary Welfare Organisation or a Non-Governmental Organisation.

Regardless of the model adopted, operating costs are bound to go up. But the taskforce stressed that the move is necessary to keep migrant workers safe.

Wong added that this may mean that the dormitories could be set up to residential areas. This was a concern that surfaced in 2008, when residents of Serangoon Gardens petitioned against the proposed housing of migrant workers in their precinct.

"I would say that Singaporeans have to do our part as well, because in land-scarce Singapore, it is inevitable that some of these new dorm sites will be quite near residential areas, so all of us must do our part by rejecting the Not-In-My-Backyard mindset," he said.

"We really need to appreciate the contributions of all that our migrant workers have been doing and we welcome them as part of our community. And this is an important part of how we can also learn from this whole experience and become a more inclusive society".