Jane Lim, Research Fellow, NUS Centre for Biomedical Ethics, ORCID: 0000-0001-9017-4714
VOO Teck Chuan, Assistant Professor, Centre for Biomedical Ethics, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore, ORCID: 0000-0003-4757-7328
Name: Mathavi Senguttuvan, Research associate/PhD candidate, Centre for Biomedical Ethics, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore, ORCID: 0000-0001-5475-1852
As a city-state in Southeast Asia of 5.9 million residents, Singapore has experienced accelerated economic and infrastructural growth in the last few decades, much of which remains inextricably tied to low-cost migrant labour, a population segment that makes up approximately 20% of the country’s population (1).
There are currently about 1.2 million migrant workers in Singapore, among whom several hundred thousand – mainly males from Bangladesh, India and China, are employed in construction, marine, or other low wage sectors. Most migrant workers working in these industries live in large, purpose-built dormitories. Other alternative housing types that accommodate a smaller number of workers include factory-converted dormitories (50 – 500 workers), temporary quarters at their respective worksites (<40 workers) and in limited numbers, private residential premises (2).
Regulated by the Ministry of Manpower, purpose-built dormitories are permanent structures that can house from 3,000 to 25,000 workers and are designed for communal living, inclusive of common recreational facilities, remittance services, and mini grocery stores. However, the placing of migrant workers in densely populated dormitories, often with 12 to 16 people in a room, creates conditions that increase the risk of seeding epidemics, facilitate transmission of infection, and make it more challenging to implement infection prevention and control measures. Despite early governance and containment of the COVID-19 outbreak, these living arrangements coupled with inadequate management subsequently gave rise to the rapid and exponential transmission of infection in migrant worker dormitories – by May 2020, and they made up 90% of all COVID-19 cases in the country (3).
The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the migrant worker community in Singapore can be seen as both an expression and a result of implicit and explicit forms of ‘othering’, which may be defined as a social process whereby a dominant group uses notions of inferiority or problematization of difference to define and demarcate another group as subordinate. A common effect of “othering” is to deny people equal respect and equal protection of their welfare, rights and dignity (4). In Singapore, othering of migrant workers was particularly evidenced during the pandemic through the implementation of differential control measures for these workers as well as stigmas held by the larger community.
Amid the country’s COVID-19 surge, Singapore announced a nationwide partial lockdown in April 2020, otherwise known as a “circuit breaker” (5,6). This required migrant workers to be confined to their rooms despite risk of increased transmission in crowded living arrangements. And while the strictest measures were lifted for most of the community by late June 2020, lockdowns and severe mobility restrictions continue to be imposed in migrant worker dormitories despite drastic decreases in the number of infections. Following a shift towards COVID-19 endemicity, a pilot programme was implemented in September 2021 allowing up to 500 vaccinated migrant workers into the community each week (7). This was accompanied by the development of improved standards for new migrant worker dormitories that aim to improve living conditions in strengthening public health resilience. As of March 2022, the number of workers allowed into the community has been increased to 15,000 for each week and 30,000 for the weekends and holidays (8), almost two years after initial movement curbs were enforced.
In addition to differential COVID-19 policies, stigmas held by the larger community continue to amplify migrant workers’ vulnerabilities amidst the pandemic. For instance, a research brief by the International Labour Organization (9) on public perceptions towards migrant workers in Singapore suggests a decline in positive attitudes toward workers together with a concomitant increase in polarisation of views. Other research indicate similar trends in findings, with escalation of pre-existing negative stereotypes of the community. To explore the role of media discourse in exacerbating social and structural inequalities in migrant workers during the pandemic, we conducted a media analysis of local mainstream media, a crucial source of information in Singapore that shapes the portrayal of migrant workers and consequently, societal perceptions of this vulnerable group.
Preliminary analysis found that ‘othering’ narratives in mainstream media occurred across different contexts, such as the objectification of migrant workers as low-skilled labour, or the focus on delayed economic outputs as the wider societal effect of the pandemic in relation to this group. Examples of headlines include “Longer waiting time for homes, increased costs due to tighter COVID-19 curbs on migrant workers: Contractors Association”, or “Homeowners can expect further renovation delays after circuit breaker as contractors face labour, supply shortage”. Similar sentiments are reiterated within the news articles:
“Construction seen to shrink 10.3% this year…this effectively brings the construction sector to a “virtual standstill”, as manual labour in the industry is almost completely dependent on foreign workers residing in these dormitories” (10).
Additionally, mainstream news media tended to report COVID-19 case counts as those of ‘dormitory’ versus ‘community’ – “Coronavirus: No Singaporeans, PRs among new cases, first time since Feb 23” – or represented migrant workers as vectors of disease that posed an increased risk to the community:
“Even though the number of Covid-19 cases has fallen considerably among the migrant worker population, Mr Wong (Co-chair of the Multi-Ministry Taskforce on COVID-19) said that the "circumstances in the dormitories" are such that they remain places where a single case could spread to many other workers…Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had also said...that it is too much of a risk to have migrant workers from dormitories mixing freely with the general population, as Covid-19 is still circulating in Singapore” (11).
Our analysis shows that in a context where low-wage, disempowered migrant workers are not socially and spatially integrated into the host community, media discourse can reproduce narratives that exacerbate different forms of stigma towards migrant worker communities and amplify their vulnerabilities during a public health emergency. As Singapore moves towards COVID-19 endemicity and ultimately, resilience, future media discourse has a crucial role in disrupting adverse societal norms, beyond just recognising the migrant worker community for their contributions to economic development. However, executing this role would be best enabled when accompanied by paradigm shifts in the structures that maintain the constructs of othering. Whether this takes immediate form during the pandemic like removal of dormitory-specific, mobility restrictions, or long-term solutions such as building dormitories or complexes in less industrial and more residential areas, interventional change must aim for better and sustainable integration of the migrant workers into the community.
- Foreign workforce numbers. Ministry of Manpower Singapore https://www.mom.gov.sg/documents-and-publications/foreign-workforce-numbers.
- Ministerial Statement by Mrs Josephine Teo, Minister for Manpower, 4 May 2020. Ministry of Manpower Singapore https://www.mom.gov.sg/newsroom/parliament-questions-and-replies/2020/0504-ministerial-statement-by-mrs-josephine-teo-minister-for-manpower-4-may-2020.
- Measures to contain the COVID-19 outbreak in migrant worker dormitories. Ministry of Manpower Singapore https://www.mom.gov.sg/newsroom/press-releases/2020/1214-measures-to-contain-the-covid-19-outbreak-in-migrant-worker-dormitories.
- Othering, identity formation and agency | Qualitative Studies. https://tidsskrift.dk/qual/article/view/5510.
- Jacinta, I., Chen, P., Yap, J. C.-H., Hsu, L. Y. & Teo, Y. Y. COVID-19 and Singapore: From Early Response to Circuit Breaker. Ann Acad Med Singapore 49, 561–72 (2020).
- Singapore’s circuit breaker and beyond: Timeline of the COVID-19 reality - CNA. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/covid-19-circuit-breaker-chronicles-charting-evolution-645586.
- Up to 500 vaccinated migrant workers in S’pore allowed into community each week as part of pilot programme | The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/health/up-to-500-vaccinated-migrant-workers-allowed-to-visit-community-each-week-as-part.
- More migrant workers can visit community, COVID-19 measures in dormitories to be streamlined - CNA. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/migrant-worker-dormitories-covid-19-restrictions-visit-community-2557951.
- Public attitudes towards migrant workers in Singapore. http://www.ilo.org/asia/publications/issue-briefs/WCMS_766633/lang--en/index.htm (2020).
- Singapore’s construction sector to take hard hit in 2020 amid Covid-19: Fitch Solutions, Government & Economy - THE BUSINESS TIMES. https://www.businesstimes.com.sg/government-economy/singapores-construction-sector-to-take-hard-hit-in-2020-amid-covid-19-fitch.
- Tan, C. Easing of movement restrictions for migrant workers to be done progressively: Lawrence Wong. The Straits Times (2021).
Jane is a research fellow at the NUS Centre for Biomedical Ethics, and is currently a member of the Epidemic Ethics (EE) project. Under the EE project, her research will focus on developing-appropriate resources to assist institutions, researchers, policymakers and communities in addressing ethical issues arising in the context of global health emergencies. Her academic background is in infectious diseases epidemiology, with a focus on the behavioural aspects of cross-sector antibiotic resistance.
Teck Chuan is an assistant professor at the Centre for Biomedical Ethics, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore. He researches on ethical issues in healthcare and epidemic response and preparedness.
Mathavi is a lawyer by training, and a research associate at the Centre for Biomedical Ethics, National University of Singapore. Also pursuing doctoral studies at the centre, her research focus is on structural stigma within the pandemic setting, particularly in relation to vulnerable migrant worker populations.