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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

News Reports

Covid-19: Let’s give ourselves the Third World treatment

It’s stopped raining. The birds at the bird shop in my neighbourhood are in full chirp. From my window, I see a neighbour wandering downstairs having a cigarette and a couple of people with their government-issued black masks making their way somewhere. To get essential supplies? To get a packed lunch? 

I haven’t been down from my home today; I am busy reading the news. I am waiting for 12.30pm when I have slotted a Zoom class for my student journalists. 

Life has changed.  

Yet in some ways, it has not. Not for a long time. 

The Covid-19 outbreak is showing up the seams in our society. MPs are talking about people who want to commit suicide because jobs have been cancelled, about breadwinners who have to let their kids go hungry. I think that most people, including me, have it real easy, being able to discuss the efficacy of wearing a mask or plotting and projecting the rise in infection cases. 

Those who live from hand-to-mouth have a safety net drawn up for them in the last three Budgets. The G has set aside its anti-welfarist tendencies by putting cash directly into people’s hands. It has no choice but to do so, because people are not working because they can’t, and not because they won’t. 

I wonder if they know how to get access to all the measures. The first reaction of those whose livelihoods are directly threatened, I think, would be panic. I am talking especially about the daily-rated workers and those employed in small businesses, like the kopi tiam uncle and hawker assistant. 

Those employed in giving direct service like manicure, plumbing and air-con servicing would probably have an appointment log full of cancelled bookings – for the second time. The first time was when they lost their Malaysian employees who decided to stay at home. Now, it’s no business at all, even if their employees had returned. 

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Do these people know about the relief for the self employed, Job Support Scheme, Workfare and other separate handouts? Or do they have to depend on the efficiency of the distribution system or the goodness of their employers? 

Or are they already too demoralised to think that they can tide over the period? It can’t be easy, driving a cab without passengers, even if there is a generous support package for taxi-drivers. There is this thing called self-worth, which usually derives from holding down a paying job. 

Then there is the question of when the money will arrive in their hands. I am glad the G now recognises the urgency of putting cash in hand quickly, pushing forward the dates of distribution to employers and workers. Even in normal times, for those living on the margins, a few days delay in salary payment could mean going hungry for those few days. 

I am also glad that applications for the Temporary Relief Fund can be done online. I don’t think people like being singled out as “those in need’’ as they queue for that $500 in community centres. They deserve our empathy, unlike the queue of people outside  IKEA outlets.

The Budgets have got more and more generous. It now supports every worker even if the worker doesn’t need that 75 per cent wage subsidy or the $900 handout. The G says those who can do without the money can donate it to other causes. I will do so for mine. I think it is time for the better-off to put their money where their mouth is instead of giving the G lip about neglecting those in poverty. 

Then I read about the state of foreign worker dormitories, which has not been much in the spotlight in recent years. It seems that such dorms are the new transmission grounds for the virus, forming the so-called third wave. 

The authorities seemed to have taken their eye off this  sector that doesn’t lend itself to social distancing measures. I wonder how that happened? Did the authorities think that because the workers go to work and then go back to the dorm, they are safe in self-contained settings? But what about Sundays and free-time? In that first round of mask distribution, foreign domestic workers can rely on the household for a mask. I wonder if the foreign workers’ employers got one for them. 

Not many citizens have ventured into the inside of those dormitories, which the G insists is a far cry from the past. From the outside, they look like the facade of an old primary or secondary school. When I pass them, I feel glad that they weren’t squashed into bin centres or taking refuge under an overhead bridge – which was far more common before 2015 when a law on housing foreign workers was put in place. That there will be pockets of foreign workers squeezed into small apartments is a given, unless there is strenuous enforcement and massive penalties.  Not every employer is scrupulous about housing their workforce, and will cut corners where they can.

About eight years ago, I was taken to a couple of such dormitories by Manpower ministry inspectors. The point was to show that it wasn’t as bad as it has been made out to be. It might not be so bad for the foreign workers, whom so many people tell me are used to even worse conditions at home, but I couldn’t bear the smell of unwashed clothes and laundry hung up to dry. I didn’t even think I could go near the communal toilets, which were reeking of piss. Then there was the combination of cooking smells as some workers were making their dinner/supper in their sleeping quarters. One inspector rested his arm on a bunk while talking to workers, and found that bed bugs had stuck on him. 

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I would have thought living conditions would be far better now, perhaps, a bigger distance placed between bunks and separate kitchens if they want to cook a meal for themselves. I am sure the best dormitories offer such facilities, including a recreation room and lounge areas. 

I hope the conditions in dorms exposed by the media and non-government organisations are the exceptions rather the rule.  Manpower minister Josephine Teo is now being vilified for their unkempt and unhealthy state. That Mrs Teo acknowledges that standards can be raised further is peculiar. This can’t have been a recent revelation for her. She talks about employers who “yelp’’ about added costs and  how there should be no “finger-pointing’’ lest her team gets demoralised. But all she has managed to convey is that the G is more worried about the “yelping’’ of employers about extra costs, and is quite sure that foreign workers wouldn’t raise a peep. Then there is this bit about how employers – and the public – must be willing to foot the bill for better living conditions for foreign workers. 

In other words, things are what they are because we don’t want our homes or offices or factory goods to become more expensive. That’s why foreign workers are living in those conditions. It is a whole-of-Singapore mindset that is the problem. 

At the risk of over-simplifying, I think our general attitude towards foreign workers is something like this:

  • We know we need them here, but we do not want them near. 
  • We know they build our homes, but don’t want to know about the “homes’’ they go back to everyday. 
  • We comfort ourselves by thinking that with the money they earn, they can build big houses of their own in their own country.  

That last bit seems to justify our ambivalence or neglect of their living conditions. We say they already have it good here, even better than before. And it will be boom time for them when they go home. 

The people have to share some of the blame but  I would have thought the G’s role would be to set the tone, get employers to pay up and persuade people on the right way to treat guest workers, yes, guest workers. It’s about decency. 

Let’s suppose that one day, God forbid, Singapore is down and out and our men and women have to go abroad to work, that is, we went from First World to Third. Does this mean we deserve Third World treatment from First World countries?


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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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