Of the 728 new COVID-19 cases reported in Singapore on 16 April, 654 were linked to migrant worker dormitories.
In a statement that best captures the racism against foreign workers in Singapore, Cabinet Minister Lawrence Wong said: “We are already having to deal with a foreign worker dormitory cluster.
“Let’s not have more clusters emerge outside of that in our own community as well.”
An estimated 62,500 migrant workers have been quarantined in just eight foreign worker dormitories. Workers have reported that they are subject to cramped and unhygienic living conditions and have been served inadequate or spoiled food.
The poor food and the sheer congestion have always been a feature of these dormitories, but with police now enforcing a quarantine, migrant workers are sitting ducks for coronavirus.
Migrant and undocumented workers in Singapore have long been subject to dangerous and precarious working conditions. In 1997, a construction worker from Bangladesh, having been paralysed in a lift accident, was driven to a remote part of Singapore and left in a drain to die.
The outbreak of Covid-19 has thrown a spotlight on the conditions under which migrant workers live, and local activists are calling on the government to recognize the freedom of migrant workers to speak out and have a voice in policy-making. But the precariousness of migrant labour, the hazardous conditions under which they work, and their racialised stigma, should not be seen as unique to Singapore or to its political situation. They are natural features of capitalism.
Almost three-quarters of Singapore’s construction industry is migrant workers. With migrant labour, capitalist production and reproduction of labour power are in geographically different places, and since the costs of life are often lower at the site of social reproduction, capitalists pay little more than just the day-to-day cost of sustaining and regenerating labour-power at the site of capitalist production.
Capitalists in labour-intensive sectors like construction draw on migrant labour in order to slash costs and maximise profit. They cram 12 to 20 workers into a room, and provide little in the way of food or healthcare.
Governments do not spend very much on migrant labour-power either. Not even a purported welfare state like Singapore, which gave 600 SGD (about $420) to each of its citizens as a “solidarity payment” for the pandemic. States benefit from the labour of migrant workers, but treat them as second-class citizens.
Surgical and cloth masks were distributed to every household in Singapore, but not to migrant workers. Singaporeans returning from abroad were quarantined in luxury hotels, but migrant workers were left to languish in overcrowded rooms with bunk beds.
The government is being lobbied to improve the situation of the migrant workers, and the capitalists too must be held responsible for migrant workers’ inhumane living conditions and for the spread of Covid-19.