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Coronavirus

Singapore revamps notorious migrant dorms with more social distance

Migrant workers move to less crowded housing to avoid clusters

Migrant workers wait for volunteers from the Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach to distribute free meals in the Little India district of Singapore.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Shamin Khan, a 35-year-old migrant worker from Bangladesh, is quite satisfied with his new living quarters.

"We are very happy and safe here," said Khan, who had moved from a crowded migrant dormitory. "It is more spacious, and we have free Wi-Fi so we can video chat with my family back home."

The housing, located on the construction site of the new Havelock subway station in downtown, is one of 100 work spaces converted into temporary accommodation for migrant workers who lived in packed dormitories that have become a breeding ground for coronavirus clusters. The government is also providing the new accommodation with free Wi-Fi.

Khan's housing, which opened in February, houses 18 workers who perform essential work related to station construction, such as safety inspections.

Not only is there air conditioning, but beds are spaced more than 2 meters apart, painting a stark contrast to conventional dorms, which typically pack 10 or more workers in the same room using bunk beds. The building is designed to prevent conditions known to fuel infections -- closed, crowded spaces and close-range conversations.

A migrant worker sits on his bed in temporary living quarters on the construction site of the new Havelock subway station.   © Reuters

Fruit and soft drinks are always available, and there is a recreational room with a TV.

While workers enjoy such generous perks, they are not allowed out of the dorms, even during days off, to minimize the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

Singapore has reported roughly 25,000 cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday, with 90% of the patients being foreign migrant workers living in crowded dormitories. The government has rolled out measures to clamp down on those clusters, including mass testing among migrant workers.

A plan outlined by the government on May 1 calls for building more new dorms. The spacious housing on the Havelock station site, which is designed to avoid closed, crowded spaces, could be a model for new dorms. Besides telemedicine, the facilities will also have medical equipment, such as oximeters, to respond to sudden illnesses among workers.

But it will take time to secure land and build additional housing. And because switching to the newly designed dorms does not come cheap, the cost to hire workers will jump.

Many migrant workers are assigned to public housing construction and similar government-funded projects, meaning taxpayers will ultimately pick up the tab for relocation.

Singapore has long debated the practice of housing migrant workers in crowded dorms cut off from the rest of society. Though that model has held up in the past, the pandemic has made it unsustainable.

Khan said he would like to continue working in Singapore, where the economy is further developed than in his home country, but he had a quick response when asked about the prospect of returning to his old dorm. "No," said Khan. "Because I feel more safe here."

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