Small dorms, big debate

Small dorms, big debate

SINGAPORE - A key issue in Parliament yesterday was the stricter regulations for dormitories that house large numbers of foreign workers.

Yet in the ensuing debate after Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin outlined the Foreign Employee Dormitories Bill, MPs focused more attention on what the legislation did not cover than on what it did.

The Bill, which was passed yesterday, imposes tougher requirements on large dorms that can house at least 1,000 foreign workers.

Operators of such dorms will have to be licensed and provide recreational facilities and disease quarantine plans, among other things.

The move is in anticipation of more such dorms being built in the next few years, an expansion fuelled by the Government's desire to improve living standards for Singapore's 770,000-strong foreign worker population.

There are already 40 or so large dorms, some of which come with facilities such as cricket pitches and minimarts. They are much more comfortable than the makeshift quarters some workers have to endure.

But almost all the MPs who spoke on the Bill yesterday wanted to discuss those latter types of housing instead.

Specifically, they asked why smaller worker dorms with fewer than 1,000 beds were not covered by the new laws.

As they pointed out, recent headline-grabbing media exposes of deplorable living conditions that some workers have to endure all featured living quarters or premises with fewer than 1,000 beds.

Yesterday's Bill might seem to have nothing to do with smaller dorms with the worst reported living conditions.

But the Government is setting rules for new large dorms precisely with the goal of preventing, or at least limiting, such cases in the future.

It is an important piece of an overarching strategy to drive them out of existence. It wants more workers in larger dorms because these are of higher standards and better regulated than smaller quarters.

But the MPs cannot be blamed entirely for keeping the focus on small dorms.

As MP Yeo Guat Kwang (Ang Mo Kio GRC) put it at the end of the three-hour debate, why was the Bill named the Foreign Employee Dormitories Bill? If it was focused on only one type of dorm, then it should have been called the "Purpose-Built Dormitories Bill".

This is an example of how clarity in presenting a policy is as important as its details.

The debate and the myriad concerns raised by MPs over the current living and working conditions for foreign workers also hinted at a gap between the aims of legislation and the immediate challenges of enforcement.

While long-term policy-making remains the Government's lodestar, as it should be, short-horizon factors - such as dismaying pictures of poor housing conditions - have the ability to distract from any national discussion.

Perhaps yesterday's discussion would have benefited from reassurances that resources for inspections and raids of workers' quarters to ensure minimal living standards would continue to be boosted.

After all, the transition towards making large dorms the norm will take years and foreign workers must be protected thoroughly in the meantime.

Maybe then these MPs would not have been distracted by a perceived lack in the legislation regarding small dorms and they could have focused more on pertinent challenges to do with the transition towards mostly large dorms.

Some MPs touched on these. Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) argued that employers must be stopped from deducting the higher cost of large dorm housing from workers' pay cheques.

Mr Patrick Tay (Nee Soon GRC) raised concerns about transport congestion, as some workers from large dorms take the same buses as residents in his ward.

It is only fair to address such social costs arising from Singapore's need for foreign workers. That more time was not spent on these issues was a missed opportunity.


This article was first published on January 21, 2015.
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