SINGAPORE - A new law which aims to improve the living conditions of foreign workers left several MPs asking why it applied only to large dorms housing 1,000 or more workers.
They also pressed Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin to extend the scope of the Foreign Employee Dormitories Bill to cover smaller dorms and other places where foreign workers live.
Wrapping up the debate in which 11 MPs spoke, Mr Tan said the Manpower Ministry (MOM) chose to impose stricter regulations on dorms with 1,000 or more workers as it is ramping up construction of more purpose- built dorms in the next few years.
"We will expect the proportion of foreign workers in larger dormitories within the (licensing) threshold to increase," he said.
Under the new law, operators of large dorms will need to get a licence which requires them to take steps to control the movement of workers, provide social and recreational facilities and have quarantine plans in place, in case of an infectious disease outbreak, among other requirements.
There are now some 40 dorms offering 200,000 beds for foreign workers. Another nine large dorm complexes will be built in the next two years, adding 100,000 beds.
While larger dorms will be held to higher standards, it does not mean the MOM is not looking out for workers living elsewhere.
Mr Tan said existing regulations require all types of foreign worker housing to meet standards in the areas of fire and structural safety, hygiene and subletting.
These include some 700 factories that have been converted into dorms with some 100,000 workers. Other workers live in shophouses, apartments and makeshift quarters on construction sites.
Mr Yeo Guat Kwang (Ang Mo Kio GRC) cautioned MOM against applying "double standards" by imposing stringent rules on large dorms and allowing standards at other places to slide.
Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC), Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC), Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) and Mrs Lina Chiam, a Non-Constituency MP, said that living conditions in places with fewer workers tend to be poor.
They cited recent media reports on filthy and dangerous conditions in some shophouses, apartments and construction sites where workers were housed.
Mr Singh said the large number of continuing violations suggests that Singapore does not have a sufficiently robust framework governing foreign worker housing.
Mr Yeo, who chairs foreign worker group Migrant Workers' Centre, suggested that the authorities apply similar standards for all types of worker accommodation.
He was among several MPs concerned about costs, noting that rents in dorms have risen from around $170 per bed in 2009 to about $350 today.
Dr Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC) noted that land prices have risen, while Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) asked if the move would see large players dominating the market.
Mr Singh also asked whether MOM has considered bringing smaller foreign worker quarters under the licensing framework.
Mr Tan said MOM would bear in mind the possibility of having different classes of licence in future, if needed.
He also acknowledged the anecdotal examples of poor living conditions, but stressed that this does not mean the situation is dire across the board. "I think it is important for the House not to have the wrong impression that there is widespread mistreatment of foreign workers," he said.
This article was first published on January 21, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.