Balli Kaur Jaswal
Rise in coronavirus cases brings to light Singaporeans’ racist attitudes towards foreign workers
- The spread of the virus among its migrant workers living in cramped conditions has touched off a wave of blame and scapegoating in society, never mind that Singapore owes its success to this huge low-paid workforce providing many essential services
Published: 6:40am, 23 Apr, 2020
Even as far as WhatsApp chain messages go, this one was egregious: “20,000 foreign workers are now quarantined in several large dormitories. If only 2 per cent are infected, they will infect onwards their maid girlfriends. We’re talking 400 infected households.”
The calculations continued exponentially to prophesise a catastrophic spread of Covid-19 in Singapore’s schools, workplaces and churches, all starting with foreign workers.
The message, circulating among my relatives a few weeks ago, made no predictions about the living conditions that would lead to a crisis of this proportion. The focus was on social habits rather than the cramped dormitories, where 20 men reportedly sleep in one room and safe distancing is not an option.
Singapore owes much of its economic success to a low-paid workforce from countries like India and Bangladesh, who build our glittering centrepieces but live on society’s periphery. As the pandemic places a grim spotlight on these workers, prevailing racist attitudes are also on full display.
A letter published in the national Chinese-language broadsheet squarely blamed foreign workers’ living habits for spreading the virus. “Many of them come from backward countries,” the writer claimed. “They like to gather and have poor personal hygiene. Aren’t migrant workers themselves responsible for this state they’re in now?”
SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Pastor Samuel Gift Stephen spends his days trying to ensure migrant workers in Singapore, confined to cramped dormitories due to an outbreak of coronavirus, all remain well fed.
He runs one of a number of non-governmental organisations working with authorities and employers to deliver meals to dormitories where workers are either under government quarantine or ordered to stay home to curb transmission of the disease.
Singapore has seen a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases to over 10,000 infections this week, the vast majority from dormitories where workers mainly from Bangladesh and India live in bunk rooms each housing 12 to 20 men.
The government has said employers are required to provide sufficient food for workers during this lockdown period, but it is also working with NGOs like Stephen’s Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach (AGWO) to make up any shortfalls.
“Employers are supposed to provide catered food to their employees. And the truth to the matter is that…some of them don’t have the muscle power, they don’t have the financial power because of this financial crunch,” Stephen, chairman of AGWO, said as he unloaded bags of plastic containers from the back of a van to dormitories on Wednesday.
The mainly South Asian workers receiving the meals, many wearing traditional saris wrapped around their waists, stood nearby queuing up to see health workers wearing masks, blue scrubs and plastic shields covering their faces.
Eloi vs Morlocks. I judge a society by how it treats those who fall outside the margin or through the cracks. I recall the 2013 Little India riot.