Singapore has COVID-19 well under control—but its migrant workers still face year-old restrictions

April 7, 2021, 1:47 PM UTC
Concern In Singapore As The Coronavirus continues To Spread
Foreign workers in Singapore are seen outside their dormitory rooms on April 21, 2020, when the city-state was battling a huge COVID-19 outbreak among migrant laborers. A year later, such workers still face restrictions despite COVID being under control.
Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

Our mission to make business better is fueled by readers like you. To enjoy unlimited access to our journalism, subscribe today.

When Saiful Islam can finally go wherever he wants again, he’ll catch up with friends on his day off, possibly at Mustafa Centre, a sprawling department store in Singapore’s Little India that stocks many of the comforts of home.   

“I didn’t see all of my friends for one year plus. So I’ll meet with them. Celebrate with them,” says the 36-year-old migrant worker from Bangladesh.  

For now, a visit by Islam to the Mustafa Centre is exactly what the Singapore government wants to prevent. The store—popular with migrant workers—was closely linked to Singapore’s sudden surge of COVID-19 in April of last year. Authorities say the virus spread from the store and ripped through work sites and the cramped dormitories that house Singapore’s migrant workers. Islam was among the 39 out of 44 workers who got sick in his small dorm. Overall, migrant workers account for well over 90% of Singapore’s 60,000 total cases.  

The outbreak shook Singapore, which until then had been held up as a model of COVID containment. The city-state imposed a “circuit breaker” stay-at-home order to slow the spread. The city’s 300,000 migrant workers, mostly from Bangladesh, India, and China, were confined to their rooms. Elsewhere, residents were required to work from home unless they provided essential services. Schools were closed. Bars and restaurants were temporarily shut.   

By late June 2020, the government had lifted the strictest measures for most of the city-state. But Singapore’s migrant laborers, most of whom work in construction, are still mostly confined to their dorms a full year later. They can leave home only for work or to visit a government recreational facility, even though the number of cases in dorms dropped to virtually zero by October. On Tuesday, the dorms logged no cases. 

The outbreak among Singapore’s migrant workers and the rules that still limit their movement have prompted soul-searching about their living conditions and their broader role in the city-state. The government is trying to improve housing for workers. Many want to reduce Singapore’s reliance on them altogether. But migrant labor is hardwired into Singapore’s economy, so for all the disruption wrought by the pandemic, the workers’ plight may be difficult to change. 

Back to normal. Almost 

For most of Singapore, life is returning to its pre-pandemic routine, except for a few mitigation protocols. Residents can roam as they please, though they have to check in nearly everywhere with an app and must wear masks in public. They can see friends, though groups larger than eight are still banned. Many white-collar workers are returning to their offices after working from home or in split shifts for a year—or longer in some cases. 

2020 was a bruising year in which the economy shrank 5.4%, but things could have been much worse. A government stimulus program worth S$111 billion, or $83 billion, bolstered the economy. Unemployment rose from an annual average of 2.3% in 2019 to 3% last year, still low by global standards.  

Concern In Singapore As The Coronavirus continues To Spread
A foreign worker in Singapore speaks on the phone on the balcony of his dormitory room on April 21, 2020, when COVID was ripping through the workers’ crowded living quarters.
Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

“In the end [the recession] was still pretty bad, but not as bad because some industries and sectors did much better during the pandemic than prior periods,” says Song Seng Wun, an economist with CIMB Private Banking. Tech firms performed particularly well because their clients sought out new digital solutions during the pandemic, he says.  

Certainly, Singapore’s relative success in controlling the pandemic staved off a worst-case scenario. Even with the outbreak among migrant workers, the country’s infection rate is low compared to that of other nations. Denmark, which has a population similar in size to Singapore’s, has reported 235,000 cases.

From Singapore’s 60,000 cases, there have been only 30 deaths. In 2020, more people died of dengue. Health authorities now have administered more than 1.3 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines with nearly 400,000, or just under 10%, of Singapore’s 5 million people having completed the full two-shot course. And most important, there are virtually no active cases of COVID-19 in the city-state, save for a trickle among travelers in quarantine. 

Hitting the most vulnerable

But activists say there’s a pernicious side to Singapore’s success in bringing COVID to heel. Singaporeans were mostly safe because the outbreak was contained to the country’s poorest and most vulnerable workers. 

Rubel Islam (no relation to Saiful) sleeps in a dorm room that houses 25 people in bunk beds, with fans but no air conditioning in a region where temperatures often top 30 degrees Celsius or 86 degrees Fahrenheit with stifling humidity. His room is bigger than most and has more people, but it’s not uncommon for a dozen or more workers to share a room with a single bathroom. It’s one reason COVID-19 was able to spread so quickly.   

Workers’ hours can be grueling and the work physically taxing. Most workers make between $400 and $800 a month, compared to a median income of $3,400 in Singapore. Both Saiful and Rubel earn well above the minimum and say their pay is about four times what they would expect to earn in their native Bangladesh. Every month, both send at least half of their earnings home. 

On May 13 last year, Rubel did some laundry and then took a nap. When he woke up, he could tell that something was wrong. 

“I feel sweating from my head, but my body is still cold,” he explained.   

A short time later, he was in an ambulance headed to a hospital. He would spend four days there recovering from COVID and many more weeks in isolation before he eventually returned to his job as a safety officer on a building site and then to his dorm. Like most migrant workers, he’s young at 26. Tens of thousands of workers eventually contracted COVID in the outbreak last year, but their youth is one reason the wave didn’t result in more deaths.

“Almost all the migrant workers infected have only mild symptoms. This is not surprising as they are generally young, and thus much less likely to become seriously ill with COVID-19,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the country in a televised address on April 21. 

“To our migrant workers,” he said, “let me emphasize again: We will care for you, just like we care for Singaporeans.” 

The circuit breaker was tough for everyone. But government action since then has relaxed restrictions for the average Singaporean, while migrant workers still mostly can’t leave their dorms except for work. The dorms remain crowded, and the government worries that a new cluster could quickly spread out of control. 

The government did not answer Fortune’s request for an official comment.

Now, the hundreds of workers in Rubel’s dorm mostly watch movies or play cards or board games between shifts. The biggest enemy is boredom.  

“We are frustrated. We are saying to each other, why can’t we go out?” Saiful said.   

Still, Rubel gives the government credit. It required employers to pay workers even when the building sites were closed as part of the circuit breaker. The workers were fed. They got medical care when they needed it. And the isolation, quarantine, and medical measures eventually stemmed the virus’s spread. Vaccinations have started in the dorms too. 

The great divide

The fruits of migrant labor are everywhere in Singapore, from airport terminals to apartment blocks to public transport to roads. But many Singporeans (and, for that matter, expatriates) would not know a migrant worker by name. The two groups live near one another in the 247-square-mile city-state, but not with each other. 

The gulf was pronounced even before COVID hit. After a riot involving migrant workers in Little India in 2013, the government accelerated the construction of worker dorms—usually boxy, simply built compounds behind fences—and located many of them away from residential estates. 

Daily Life In Singapore Amid The Coronavirus Pandemic
A worker walks under the skeletal structure of a quick-build dormitory at a construction site on June 9, 2020, in Singapore. The government built several new living facilities for migrant workers after COVID infected their crowded dormitories.
Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

The pandemic made the divide even deeper. After cases shot up in the dorms last April, the government started separating dormitory cases from “community” cases in its daily COVID report. And it took advantage of the design of worker dormitories to shut laborers off from the rest of the city-state. 

“The dorms were built in such a way that [the government] could lock the gates at any time,” said Alex Au, vice president of advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too. “And of course in 2020, they found [the design] very useful, and therefore they congratulated themselves on their foresight.” 

Au worries that the government will be so pleased with the results, that it might be reluctant to completely return to pre-COVID rules, when migrant workers could move around Singapore freely. 

A better way ahead?  

When Rubel Islam returned home after his illness last year, he was happy to find the dorm much cleaner.    

The government, for its part, has swung into action to improve living conditions after the virus infiltrated the dorms last year. It’s trying to thin out the number of workers in the dorms, setting up temporary modular dorms and moving some laborers into vacant public housing and old military barracks. Over the longer term, the government plans to build new dorms for 100,000 workers, with a maximum of 10 workers per room.  

But in the short term, the effort bumped up against a familiar problem. Employers pay for workers to live in the dorms, and they’re reluctant to pay more. 

“Each time we attempt to raise standards, employers yelp—these are added costs which they must eventually pass on,” Josephine Teo, Singapore’s minister for manpower, said in a Facebook post in April.  

It’s a neat summation of the migrant worker issue. Singapore has long depended on low-wage foreign workers to do the jobs Singaporeans don’t want. And there’s an entrenched set of stakeholders who are reluctant to pay more to employ them. Business, manufacturing, and marine and specialists trade groups all say the existing system makes Singapore more competitive and keeps prices low. Ultimately, they argue that ordinary Singaporeans would have to absorb the increased costs of better pay or conditions.

The ruling People’s Action Party, meanwhile, hopes more automation will reduce the need for so many workers.

“Perhaps the best that [the government] can really hope for is that they can do the same or more with the same number of people on the ground here in Singapore, so it doesn’t grow as fast as it used to,” said Song Seng Wun. 

The government plan to improve the dorms has relegated more labor-minded reform proposals to the back burner. Au said the three biggest issues for workers are exorbitant recruitment costs (workers sometimes pay up to six months of salary to secure a position in Singapore), an inability to change jobs without first returning home, and a way to address employers who default on wages. 

Going home

Saiful Islam’s wife and two children are still in Bangladesh, and he hasn’t seen them in three years. He’s used to spending long periods of time away from them, but when so many around him got sick, he was genuinely worried he might not see them again.  

“It was really a very scary situation,” he said.  

Any changes the government makes to the migrant worker system won’t incentivize Saiful to stay.

Many workers aim to work in Singapore for 15 years—enough time to return home with a decent nest egg. But after 12 years and a brush with COVID, Saiful has decided to return home early.  

“Maybe I cannot see my family. Maybe I cannot spend time with them,” he said. “So that’s why I decided, maybe I have to change my plan. Maybe I have to be going back.” 

For the moment, he’s still stuck in his dorm with little indication of when he’ll be free to roam the city again. He doesn’t know if he’ll have the opportunity to meet with his friends at Mustafa Centre one last time before he leaves.