SINGAPORE, Nov 2 — Shortcomings by all parties — the employer, the dormitory operator and the Government — led to an incident last month at Westlite Jalan Tukang dormitory, where riot police were deployed, Senior Minister of State for Manpower Koh Poh Koon said yesterday.
Dr Koh said in Parliament that the Government had conducted a thorough review and improved processes, especially when it comes to marshalling more resources to deal with a surge in Covid-19 cases and tightening coordination with dorm operators and employers on the handling of mass virus testing and increases in cases.
Dr Koh added that since October 13, calm had been restored to the dormitory and its 3,000 migrant worker residents — about half of them employed by Sembcorp Marine and almost all of them arrivals from China in the last three to four months.
Last month, videos of unrest at the dormitory made their rounds on several online platforms. Riot police were seen forming up outside the dorm entrance and several armoured police vehicles were reportedly seen parked along the road outside.
Addressing questions on the incident, Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan said in Parliament on Monday that the police units were activated to respond to reports that a group of workers were behaving aggressively “with potential for violence”.
“The police deploy their forces based on the nature and the scale of the incident. Different units will be activated and deployed for different purposes depending on the situation for each case,” he added. “And we generally do not disclose the kind of units and any other details that are related to the operation.”
Food quality and hygiene were also raised by the workers, who shared photos of insects and hair found in their food provided by Sembcorp Marine, online.
The firm said last month that it had taken the caterer to task and insisted on strict adherence to hygiene and quality of food served to the migrant workers employed by the company.
Dr Koh said investigations into failures to fulfil regulatory obligations, such as in the areas of food safety and hygiene, are ongoing.
Adjusting to new protocols
Providing a full account of the events at the dormitory in Parliament on Monday in response to a series of questions from eight Members of Parliament (MP), Dr Koh said the dormitory operator was adjusting to the new protocols put in place on October 2, in line with the shift in Covid-19 guidelines in the community.
Under the new protocols, vaccinated workers who test positive for Covid-19 who are asymptomatic or show only mild symptoms can be monitored in dedicated rooms set aside within the compounds or three centralised recovery facilities. Forty-five larger dormitories have dedicated blocks or rooms set aside for this.
Unvaccinated workers still need to be taken to isolation facilities outside the dormitories.
However on October 10, there were 174 Covid-19 positive cases detected in the Westlite Jalan Tukang dorm and the dormitory operator had difficulty processing the sudden surge of workers that needed to be taken to external facilities, said Dr Koh.
The next day, key staff members also did not turn up for work after they tested positive for Covid-19 and officers from the Ministry of Manpower’s Assurance, Care and Engagement (ACE) group stepped in to assist the operator.
Dr Koh said a mass testing exercise was carried out on October 12 in response to the surge in infections. It found another 278 positive Covid-19 cases that needed to be taken to external facilities.
“This happened while the team was trying to process the previous surge and the dormitory operator struggled to process the high volume.
“While the ACE officers tried to assist the operator between October 11 and 12, it, too, did not put in sufficient resources during this time to triage, process and convey the Covid-19 positive workers before the second surge on October 13,” he added.
Doubled the number of officers deployed
Dr Koh said after the incident on October 13, ACE doubled the numbers of officers deployed to the dormitory and by that evening, 70 per cent of workers who needed to be taken to recovery or isolation facilities were sent there.
The backlog was cleared by the next day.
Dr Koh added that along with Sembcorp Marine and Westlite, ACE officers have assured workers that there would be timely conveyance of infected individuals, among others.
Asked by Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh if there would be enough ACE officers to cover the dormitories islandwide, Koh said: “There will never be enough on a regular basis, to plant people in all 1,300 dormitories (here).
“But how we go about doing this system leverages on the partnership we have with our stakeholders — the dormitory operators, the employers, and of course we have volunteers within the migrant worker community.”
In response to a question by Desmond Choo, MP of Tampines Group Representation Constituency, on why other agencies and non-governmental agencies (NGOs) were not brought in to support the ACE officers, Dr Koh said external parties could step in only after the unrest and the backlog of Covid-19 cases were resolved.
“I think with Covid cases going up in the dorm, it would not have been appropriate to allow NGOs to be exposed to the risk of infection in a dorm like this. And because the work was about medical care, about conveyance, it is not necessarily something that the NGOs have the capability to provide.”
Dr Koh said that in summary, the employer Sembcorp Marine’s shortcomings were that the workers were upset over food quality and hygiene, the dormitory operator Centurion Corporation struggled to cope with the surge in Covid-19 numbers and the Government, through ACE, “stepped in but did not put in sufficient resources in time to resolve the problem”. — TODAY