Looking back, was there anything the Government could have done differently to manage the Covid-19 outbreak in the migrant workers’ dormitories?
That is the question at the heart of Minister for Manpower Dr Tan See Leng’s speech on Monday (Mar 20) as he reflected on the decisions made, the trade-offs considered, and the lessons learnt in the Ministry of
Manpower’s journey in the last three years.
Because even though Singapore managed to keep the mortality rate among migrant workers low, Minister Tan acknowledged that Singapore could have done better in terms of early testing, providing face masks, or communicating better with dormitory workers.
But as easy as it is to pontificate about what has gone awry, hindsight is a dangerous game.
What is more important is how we can use the lessons from Covid-19 to build resilience in the dormitories, said Minister Tan as he outlined reforms in three areas: housing, healthcare and mental health support for our migrant workers.
Improving dormitory standards
One thing that came under the spotlight during the pandemic was the standards of our migrant worker dormitories.
Left to the free market, living conditions at some dormitories were appallingly unhygienic, even in the best of times.
As a result, Minister Tan shared that the Government has since made policy changes to improve living and public health standards in dormitories to ensure that Singapore is better prepared for a future health crisis.
From next month onwards, the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act (FEDA) will be expanded to include migrant worker dormitories that have fewer than 999 beds.
According to Minister Tan, this should raise the operating standards of dormitories since operators will be liable for financial penalties if there are safety lapses.
Along with plans to build two new dormitories in partnership with the private sector, it will provide the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) with the opportunity to innovate and pilot new ideas for public health resilience and dormitory living and improve the lived experience of migrant workers, said Minister Tan.
Redesigning primary healthcare
Besides cramped housing, a lack of accessible and affordable healthcare options for migrant workers meant that many did not have a habit of seeing a doctor when they felt unwell.
To tackle this issue, Minister Tan shared that the Government has taken a holistic approach to redesign the delivery of primary care services to migrant workers.
Firstly, the need to provide accessible healthcare.
While visiting a GP or polyclinic is a no-brainer for us, our migrant workers experience cost and language barriers when seeking medical attention.
That is why by organising migrant workers living in dormitories into six geographical zones, workers can seek help at designated clinics in each zone, which have in place a multilingual team to bridge language and cultural barriers.
In addition, employers must purchase a Primary Care Plan (PCP) for eligible migrant workers.
Operating like an insurance policy, the PCP will allow workers to seek medical consultation 24/7 via telemedicine or report sick at their designated regional medical centres for a small fee.
Minister Tan said:
“With these measures…we help workers to develop better health-seeking habits through accessible medical care. At the same time, we can leverage the new primary healthcare system for public health surveillance.”
Supporting mental well-being
Lastly, restricting the movement of migrant workers was probably one of the more contentious issues Singapore had to deal with.
But as Minister Tan noted, the PAP Government had to make a judgement call in the fog of war.
“Amid the uncertainty, our considerations were to prioritise our migrant workers’ safety and ensure they could continue working, receive their salary and send money home.”
Acknowledging that the delay in easing up had taken a toll on the mental well-being of our migrant workers, Minister Tan shared that MOM has responded by setting up a task force (Project DAWN) to develop an ecosystem to support the mental health of migrant workers.
Over the past two and a half years, Project DAWN has implemented several initiatives, ranging from raising awareness about and conducting screenings for mental health issues to providing timely support to rehabilitate patients.
Lastly, as a Government determined to keep care accessible even as we transit to Covid-19 endemicity, HealthServe, with MOM’s support, has set up a 24-hour counselling hotline with native-speaking para-counsellors to deliver culturally-attuned counselling.
Ending his speech, Minister Tan noted that only by implementing these structural reforms in our migrant worker management capabilities, can we ensure that our migrant workforce remains a productive and pandemic-resilient complement to our local workforce in the long run.
Picture Sources: MOM/ ACE Group/SG Government/Tan See Leng via Facebook