There’s a movie theatre, air-conditioned gymnasiums, a beer garden – and even a sea view to boot.
No, we’re not talking about a fancy chalet by the beach, but the Tuas View Dormitory, which touts itself as the “largest housing complex for foreign workers in Singapore”.
Around 20 participants from NUS and members of the public had the chance to visit the dorm on Wednesday afternoon (2 Feb) as part of Migrant Workers’ Awareness Week (MWAW), organised by students from NUS Law and Yale-NUS College.
Participants ranged from NUS students to members of the public, including a soon-to-be freshie matriculating this August and even a curious epidemiologist.
Leading the group was Year 1 Law student Janice Teo, who hoped that the visit would be an eye-opening experience for the participants.
“We want students to be aware of problems migrant workers face. One of the most beneficial things that will (hopefully) come out of this is that students are more aware of migrant workers living in humane conditions,” the 20 year old said.
“For me personally it balances out the perception that all migrant workers are treated unfairly. There’s a very broad middle ground where it’s humane and beneficial to the economy. It may not be the most cost-cutting method but it’s possible,” she said.
The dormitory, which has a total bed capacity of 16,800, is currently housing 11,000 to 12,000 workers, according to HR Manager Derek Tang, who led the tour around the complex.
The mega-dormitory, which is located at Tuas South Avenue 1, is surrounded by factories and construction grounds. More than 10 factories were refurbished into these dorms, as part of a government initiative to build 20 purpose-built dormitories.
The companies pay for their workers’ accommodation, with fees ranging from $300-350 per month. The workers are mostly employed in lower-skilled jobs, such as in the construction and oil refinery industry.
The group was brought around the complex, which boasts facilities including two supermarkets, a food court, reading and TV rooms, and outdoor game courts.
Mr Tang was quick to emphasise that there were no curfews or restriction of movement, pointing out that workers could leave the dorm anytime they wanted.
“It’s a self-contained place where the resident need not visit elsewhere. Everything that they need is available. But of course if they want to they can go out, but for day to day groceries they can get them here,” said Mr Tang.
However, the barbed wire fencing the dorm and fingerprint scanners told a different story.
“It looks almost like a type of apartheid to have them stay separate from residents in Singapore.”
The participants were shown a portion of a BBC video clip, which featured the then newly opened dorm. But it was cut off before the video continued on to highlight the poor and cramped living conditions of another dorm, and questioned the government’s efforts in building these purpose-built dorms.
“Remote areas is where there’s spaces to build these dormitories. But we hear the government talking about having a better relationship with foreigners, but on the other hand we see them housed in these far-off places and it looks almost like a type of apartheid to have them stay separate from residents in Singapore,” said Debbie Fordyce from Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).
Yet, as the BBC video noted, for many workers scrutiny is a fact of life – and necessary for safety and security reasons, as voiced by the government and dorm operator.
Other questions lingered – such as why companies would want to pay $200 a month to house their workers, when they could house them at construction sites or rundown dorms at a much cheaper rate.
When this question was raised, Mr Tang said that “no dorm is alike” and declined to comment further.
“A good step forward”
Yet many agreed that it was a move in the right direction when it comes to providing more adequate living conditions for migrant workers.
“It was better than I would thought it would be – they have rather spacious bedrooms and communal areas to cook and eat together,” said Lee Zhong Han, a 19 year old waiting to enlist in National Service. “Initially I thought it was a closed space, but it turned out the entire compound is really spacious and the amenities and everything they need is there.”
Another participant who agreed was newly appointed Yale-NUS Dean of Students, Dr Christopher Bridges, who signed up to find out more about the living conditions of migrant workers in our midst – especially since “we have a lot of migrant workers on campus.”
“I’m brand new to Singapore – I’ve only been here for four weeks so it’s an opportunity to find out about Singapore and what migrant workers live like. I thought it was very interesting, and it’s great that everything’s provided,” he said.
But Dr Bridges also expressed concern about the “dual tension” present in Singapore’s treatment of foreign workers.
“There’s the question of the migrant workers’ role in Singapore society and how they do or don’t integrate in society. I’d like to learn more about the relationship between migrant workers and Singapore, because there’s a dual benefit – they gain work and Singapore gains from that. But after seeing the dorms it seems like there’s more to the story than that.”
“It paints a very idealistic picture, but it’s improving in standards.”
While some had hoped to have a deeper understanding of how migrant workers live, they agreed that living standards for migrant workers were improving.
“I guess with visits like this they tend to show the better side of dorms, and obviously since it’s a weekday it’s not an accurate picture of what dorm life is for the workers, as much as they tried to capture what they do everyday,” said 19 year old Ryhan Astha. “I don’t think I really got to understand how workers interact with each other, which I think makes a bigger part of their lives.”
Although Year 1 Business student Chanel Goh expressed similar concerns, she was optimistic. “It doesn’t paint the full picture of the whole situation but I guess it was a relief that they were living in a good situation,” she said.
Likewise, Year 1 Political Science student Jasper Tan said that the dorm operator had “good intentions”, even though the dorm could not be considered representative of the situation at large.
“For one it paints a very idealistic picture, but it’s improving in standards. I’ve been to other dorms which are very poorly conditioned, and obviously there are still existing dorms that are rundown, but I see constant improvement,” the 21 year old said.
MWAW is an annual week-long initiative which aims to raise awareness of the myriad of issues surrounding migrant workers in our midst.
Running from 31 Jan to 4 Feb, MWAW has organised other activities, including a poetry reading and cultural night involving Bangladeshi migrant workers, to a dialogue in the dark where participants can converse with one another freely and openly. For more information, visit their Facebook page today.
All photos taken by Jevon Chandra.
Did you participate in any MWAW events this week? Let us know your thoughts on Facebook or in the comments below!