/‘[It’s] like we are inside a cage’: S’pore migrant workers stuck in dorms for past 1 year – Mothership.SG – News from Singapore, Asia and around the world

‘[It’s] like we are inside a cage’: S’pore migrant workers stuck in dorms for past 1 year – Mothership.SG – News from Singapore, Asia and around the world

PERSPECTIVE: “But we wait, wait, but there is nothing happening. Until today, we cannot go out. We come in work and go to the dorm, that’s it.”

It has been nearly one year after it was announced on Apr. 21, 2020 that all foreign worker dormitories in Singapore would be put under lockdown.

The Covid-19 situation in dormitories appears to have levelled off since the peak of over 1,000 new dormitory cases a day in April 2020. Since 2021, there have been six Covid-19 cases amongst dormitory residents. Most workers are also back at work. 

However, life is far from normal for dormitory residents, as their movement is restricted to their dormitories, their work sites, and one of Singapore’s eight Recreation Centres. 

42-year-old Bangladeshi migrant worker Zakir Hossain Khokan, who lives in Cochrane Lodge II, tells us more about what life is like on the inside for migrant workers, and the impact that Covid-19 and being mostly restricted to their own dorms has had on them.

Zakir is also the founder of Migrant Writers Singapore and One Bag, One Book, an initiative to spread reading culture among migrant workers living in Singapore.

By Zakir Hossain Khokan, as told to Jane Zhang

Shuttling between dormitory & worksite

We were allowed only go to work. Dorm and work. That’s it.

[In the dorm,] we can go corridor, we can go downstairs, walk inside the dorm at level one. But we cannot go outside of the dorm.

The situation is like we are inside a cage, you know. This one kind of mental torture of the environment.

Some of my roommates joke to each other, “Hey, now we are in zoo. Hopefully some people come and buy some ticket and they will see us.” Sad, but people make joke to make laugh.

Recently, they allow us to go nearest RC for three hours.

[Editor’s note: Responding to Mothership’s queries, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said in a statement on Apr. 14 that since Mar. 10, migrant workers living in dormitories are allowed to visit Recreation Centres up to three times a week, up from once per week previously.

These visits can be booked on different days of the week, or back-to-back on the same day.

The ministry said that on average, over 16,000 workers per week have booked multiple visits to the RCs.]

People can go, they have barbershop. Then vegetable shop and other grocery items they can buy. Also they can transfer money. And one small canteen.

The arrangement at least [allows] people go there. Just go there, and — I’ll use Singlish — just jalan jalan lah!

Sunday if we no go work, 12 people inside the room, a very big crowd. Then people thinking, okay for three hour, they allow us to go RC.

zakir covid-19 Zakir and some of his roommates. Photo courtesy of Zakir.

We don’t know what to do; why we go, we also don’t know. Just go there lah, if need some groceries item, or some vegetable or fish or whatever! Better than stuck in the room.

Unable to see friends

If I go RC, feeling is okay, but actually does not give much refreshment. How to explain in English, I also don’t know…

Actually, because we are waiting to meet our friends and family. But in RC, actually cannot be meet friends because different friends are living in different area in Singapore, different dorm in Singapore.

We miss each other, but we cannot meet together lah.

[The last time that we could meet with friends] was April 2020. In April, we do some activity in Little India — we distributed mask, hand sanitiser, and other things.

After Apr. 7, government announced Circuit Breaker. After Circuit Breaker, we have very, very — how to say? — very difficult time. We cannot meet together, cannot share.

Sometime we call, sometime video call. But this actually not captures everything, lah.

You know that as a human being, we find those similar kind of mentality friends. If can talk very long time, that can help us for mental well-being.

But in this pandemic actually, that also not possible.

[Editor’s note: MOM also told Mothership that it has worked with various partners to facilitate 10 outings since the start of 2021, bringing almost 7,000 migrant workers to the community.]

Workers facing stress, mental health issues

This Covid actually — physically and mentally — really affected me very badly. Not only me. Suddenly I see my roommates and colleagues, they also affected very badly. Friends also, they also down.

I find out that they work very hard in this time, and they only can go work and dorm, not allowed to go other place. This is one kind of mental pressure for them — mental sickness or sort of thing.

Environment has a lot of change happen after Covid. Behaviour also have change.

I find out in my roommate who was very talkative, after Covid he become a very silent person. Someone who always made jokes for everyone, we laugh — this person also become very quiet. This all affect people’s attitude, you know.

Like my job site, when I joined back after Circuit Breaker, I find that so many workers actually come to our safety department, and they share that they are not feeling well.

After a loooong time quarantined, they come back to join work, then they cannot concentrate to work, they’re feeling every day headache, back pain, cannot eat properly, some people lost the [appetite].

Some people say, “I cannot get energy to work.”

Mentally, they cannot concentrate, they cannot stable work. Actually this all coming from the mental health problem, but they cannot explain why they feeling these things, because this is very first experience for them also.

So actually, people need to, at the first level, talk about mental health — what is mental health?

Mental health festival

This pandemic time, you know, Migrant Writer of Singapore we started one Facebook group, called Daily Life in Covid-19. The page name we change now to “Arts in Me”.

That page actually helped us along — so many new friends and new migrant workers and locals, they join the group and they share their stories, their motivational messages, their videos.

I think that also helped us a lot in the mental health well-being area. This positive vibe I think needs to spread in the society.

And in society, I find out not many people actually talk about mental health issues. That is one kind of taboo in the society — people thinking mental health is actually something that cannot share, cannot talk. That kind of taboo still have in society, everywhere.

So I find out this taboo need to break also. We need to open up and we need to share our story, our experience, so other people can hear, can learn. And sharing is one kind of medicine for well-being also.

And that’s why, together with my team — Migrant Writers of Singapore — we need to make awareness in society about mental health.

I think people need to know what is the symptom of mental health, and where they have to go if they have some difficulty.

So we’re going to do this mental health festival on Apr. 25 at Tzu Chi Centre.

This actually is not only for migrant workers. I find that locals also facing a lot of mental health issues. That’s why I invite to local and migrants, “Please join our festival. And please we share our experience together.”

If we share more, than maybe we can find out some solutions, some ways that will help us more. We even invite some psychologists in our panel discussion. For event we put yoga, we put meditation, we put storytelling, poetry reading. This a lot of things that are related to mental well-being.

I think this mental health festival is very important in this time.

If you want a healthy community, if you want a healthy city, if you want a healthy country, without mental health, you cannot have a healthy country!

[Editor’s note: The Mental Health Awareness & Wellbeing Festival will be happening on Sunday, Apr. 25 from 12:30pm to 5:30pm.

The festival will be open to an on-site audience of up to 50 people at the Tzu Chi Humanistic Youth Centre, in accordance with existing Safe Management Measures. It will also live-streamed online.

Find out more about the event here, and sign up to attend in-person here.]

Not sure when we will be allowed to leave dorms

We don’t know [when we will be able to leave our dorms again]. We are waiting for that. We still don’t know when we will be allowed to go to [anywhere] other than worksite. We no have any idea.

[Editor’s note: On Dec. 14, 2020, MOM announced that it would be starting a pilot scheme in the first quarter of 2021 to allow migrant workers in some dormitories to access the community once per month.]

[Reading this announcement] made us smile, and we were very happy when we read this article, that MOM announced this kind of thing.

We expected that very soon we can go out and we can breathe outside. And so that gave us one kind of expectation.

It’s not just me — my friends and colleagues who are living in worker’s dorm, they were also hoping that they will come out of it soon, because day by day, the infected rate from dorm is down and down, right?

So when the situation is improving, that also give us hope that very soon, hopefully we can go out.

But we wait, wait, but there is nothing happening. Until today, we cannot go out. We come in work and go to the dorm, that’s it.

We are waiting for the announcement that government will allow us to move in society and we can go where we want.

We hope that very soon we can move out of the dorm. Because this actually… if this time is day by day make longer, this situation actually make people one kind of a patient of mental health, and psychological issues will come out.

[Editor’s note: Responding to Mothership’s queries about the status of the pilot scheme, the ministry said that in the “near future”, migrant workers will be allowed visits to the community in controlled numbers once a month. 

“We are working on the details and will provide more information when ready. When a large majority of dorm residents are recovered workers or vaccinated and the risk of transmission in dormitories is greatly reduced, we can ease restrictions further.”

MOM added:

“The recent Covid-positive case in a dormitory at Brani Terminal Avenue is a reminder that we must continue to be vigilant in our fight against Covid-19.

This is in line with our commitment to calibrate and ease restrictions in a safe manner.”]

Creating a bridge between migrant workers and locals

Locals have to feel the situation, how the migrant workers’ life is going, realise what a tough life actually we are going through now.

If they realise, I think, they will find out how much sacrifice is going from migrant communities, to make the locals’ lives better. This all is a sacrifice actually.

What I’m doing, it’s doing for Singapore. When the local people will be sing the national anthem Majulah Singapura, hopefully they will realise that migrant worker also did a lot of work for Singapore.

If they realise these things, that will be very helpful and that will change people’s views about migrant community.

And that is very important to change view to positive for migrant community, because when the virus spread, we received a lot of negative comments that “migrant workers not have any blah blah”, and “they bring this virus in society”.

Actually, that is wrong. Now, they have to realise. We’re not bringing any virus in Singapore. This virus is spread because of unhealthy accommodation system.

You see, we are the most suffer because of wrong design of dorm. Still today we suffer.

I think if they realise, they will be find a positive view for migrant workers. And that positive view will make a bonding or bridge with locals and migrants.

That kind of thing will make healthy community, and will reduce discrimination and other things in society.

So I think this pandemic also show us that migrants and locals can come together and they also can make a wonderful, wonderful bonding together.

And that is very important for a healthy society, for mental health resources. If in a society, we can increase more humanity, that will be make a happy society.

Related story:

Top photo by Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images.