SINGAPORE: Singapore, with increasing dependency on migrant labourers for its manpower-intensive industries, has worked out a multi-year road map to build a more resilient migrant workforces by improving housing standards and exploring outsourcing of mental health counselling services to the workers' home countries.
Singapore's construction and marine industries among other labour-intensive sectors are highly dependent on migrant workers, a large number of whom comes from India and Bangladesh.
Manpower Minister Dr Tan See Leng laid out plans for improving the housing standards in dormitories for migrant workers in an interview published by The Straits Times on 'International Migrants Day' on Saturday.
Dr Tan said the Ministry of Manpower is exploring whether counselling services could be outsourced to the migrant workers' home countries so there is better cultural understanding.
"If you have someone from your home country or hometown, I think half the battle is won," he said.
"While the government has spearheaded these efforts, a whole-of-society effort is needed to ensure the well-being of our migrant workers," he said.
Dormitories, crowded with migrant workers, were among the main COVID-19 spreading clusters here during the peak of deadly disease wave in Singapore.
Dr Tan described an operating model that would provide support for workers before they enter Singapore until they return home for good and sketched out a vision of the future for the migrant workforce in Singapore.
As a part of a multi-year road map by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to build a more resilient migrant workforce, housing standards for migrant workers would be raised, possibly as soon as next year.
The authorities are set to strengthen laws so that all dormitories, regardless of size, have to meet the same minimum standards, according to The Straits Times report.
Existing dorms will also be put on a timeline to meet improved standards on living space and common facilities, with more dialogue sessions on this slated for early next year.
The MOM will also redouble its efforts to provide quality, accessible, seamless and affordable healthcare for migrant workers here and enhance their social well-being by improving recreation centres and beefing up community outreach.
Another facet of MOM's plans is the reintegration of migrant workers into the community through the safe and measured easing of movement restrictions.
But on this point, Dr Tan was more circumspect.
While 98 per cent of migrant workers are fully vaccinated and 88 per cent of those eligible for a booster shot have taken the additional jab, Dr Tan iterated the need to find a "safe window" to further ease measures, especially in light of the new Omicron variant.
"We should not couch our policies with regards to easing based on feel," he said.
"We have to base it on studies, we have to base it on real data.
Dr Tan said, "We still need to have data when it comes to how we respond and how our immune systems and our defences will behave (to the new variant)... Would you rather that I commit without knowing these things? I don't think that it will be tenable."
Dr Tan listed the many milestones that the MOM has crossed over the past year, from the improved standards for new dormitories, to the reshaping of the primary healthcare system for migrant workers, to the mental health support task force that was set up.
Likening these efforts to laying the foundations for a building, he said the next step is to build the walls and roof.
"The challenge is to make sure that we are able to carry the stakeholders along with us because these are fairly bold and fairly strong moves moving forward."
Dr Tan called for continued support from the private sector, non-governmental organisations and volunteers, as well as philanthropies.
On housing standards specifically, Dr Tan said the MOM is still studying how wide the gap is between the improved standards and current conditions at existing dorms.
"I am not close to seeing how we can try to support these dorm operators to achieve the desired state...It will not be a one-step thing," said Dr Tan, adding that there will be a clearer picture when Budget 2022 is debated in Parliament for April 1, 2022, to March 31 the following year (2023).
The MOM is also ramping up the development of migrant worker onboarding centres, which were set up in March to integrate COVID-19 quarantine services, enhanced medical examinations and a settling-in programme for new workers.
A sixth such centre, with 12,000-bed capacity, was opened on December 15.
Echoing a speech that he gave during the Budget debate in March (2021) about transforming the migrant worker landscape, Dr Tan said, "This journey is just beginning.
"If anything at all, this pandemic has nudged us and, in fact, showcased that there are many measures we potentially could have thought of, or could think about," he added.
Meanwhile, Singapore reported on Saturday the lowest number of COVID-19 cases in three months, lasts being September 6.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) logged 271 new COVID-19 infections, including two imported cases of the Omicron variant.
The coronavirus infection count now stands at 275,655, while another fatality raised the death toll from the pandemic to 810 in Singapore.
The MOH said 221 cases were from the community, six from the migrant workers' dormitories and 44 were imported or those arriving from abroad.
As of Friday, 96 per cent of Singapore's eligible population, those aged 12 and above, have completed their full vaccination regimen.
About 33 per cent of the total population have received their vaccine booster shots.