Monday, April 6, 2020

Foreign workers should not be weak link in Singapore's efforts to fight COVID-19

Hearts and minds: More than 10 years ago, Resorts World Sentosa and dormitory operator, 5 Star Dormitory Management, worked in concert to maintain workforce health at the little-known dormitory on Pulau Brani. Every foreign national who stayed at the quarters had his country's flag display (see below for the reasons). I had also suggested that we printed pictures of the integrated resort for workers so they could show their families what they were building. The posters were very well-received.  

Foreign worker dormitories must not be the weak link in the chain as Singapore fights the coronavirus pandemic.

With 20,000 foreign workers now quarantined at two dormitories, it should be clear that a COVID-19 outbreak that gets out of hand in these quarters will have serious consequences. Singapore's healthcare system will need to ramp up quickly to accommodate and treat these patients if many workers fall seriously ill. Law and order situations may flare too, if remaining residents beset by fear and anxiety want to leave the premises without permission.

Singapore's whole of government approach must cascade its messages to our foreign worker communities quickly and effectively. This is harder said than done. Foreign worker communities present disparate challenges, chief amongst which are the different languages, attention span and levels of literacy within these communities.

More than 10 years ago, my employer assigned me the task of managing foreign worker issues. I partnered a team of former Singapore Police Force officers led by Mr Oh Kar Chye (who once headed the SPF Security Command) to roll-out our hearts and minds plan. To be frank, the foreign worker dormitory built on Pulau Brani was terra incognita for the former cops and myself (a former journalist) but we managed as best we could.

Our brief was simple: Keep the workers happy and healthy so that the tight construction timelines for the massive Resorts World Sentosa integrated resort worksite would not be compromised by health issues, dormitory squabbles or work-to-rule situations (i.e. strikes).

We sought to build up emotional capital with the workers by demonstrating that they were an integral part of the IR project. They were not cogs in the wheel but were human beings from many nations - places like Bangladesh, China, India, Malaysia, Myanmar and several more - who came to Singapore to make a living.

We worked with the dormitory operator, 5 Star Dormitory Management, to chart out a calendar of events where we could mark special occasions (eg Singapore's National Day), country-specific dates or festivals that were meaningful to the workers.

Suggestion boxes and helplines were placed prominently at the dormitory entrance, complemented by our weekly walkabouts to gather feedback. This gave workers and 5 Star the chance to defuse any simmering issues before they exploded.

Believe me, the foreign workers were a creative lot. A samsu distillery that used glass bottles, plastic buckets and tubes was discovered and dismantled. There was at least one cigarette smuggling ring that was busted. There was the occasional fight between various nationalities and theft in dwelling.

But by and large, workforce health was vibrant. From what the foreign workers told us, they felt the care and concern from 5 Star and the client (RWS) was genuine. It indeed was, and those of us assigned this task did our best to make the workers feel at home.

Building goodwill: Am pleased to report that my suggestion for printing posters of the RWS integrated resort for foreign workers proved a hit with the dormitory residents. Workers took pictures and asked for additional posters as souvenirs. Many workers told us they were proud to show their family members they were working on a prestigious project to build the integrated resort.

Among my suggestions accepted by the work group was the hanging of flags (see above) representing every nationality housed on Pulau Brani. No matter how small the national contingent, every foreigner housed at the dorm saw their national flag at the entrance. It was aesthetically pleasing but there was a deeper reason behind the addition of national flags. Now that many years have passed and RWS has been built successfully, I can perhaps share the rationale for doing so. I reasoned if a riot broke out in the dormitory, disgruntled workers were less likely to burn down dormitory infrastructure when their own national flag hung (out of easy reach) in the facility itself. And so, the suggestion was implemented, the flags went up as required and were quite well received by residents.  :-)

Loud and clear: Here's something we couldn't show back then. It's a long-range acoustic device. It was part of standby drawer plans sketched out by a group of former police officers and I for handling disruptive situations. Thankfully, the situation in the Pulau Brani dormitory was harmonious. Never had to trigger the standby plans. 

The RWS CSR team worked hard to keep the workers well fed. Buffet lines were set up on special occasions, like National Day and religious festivals, with special meals for the dormitory residents. It was a treat they all enjoyed - free and sumptious meals served by the dormitory operator or RWS staff who volunteered for the occasions. Bangladeshi and Indians enjoyed the special meals during Chinese New Year, and likewise the substantial PRC community liked the treats during festivals celebrated by their fellow workers.

During one Chinese New Year shutdown, we brought all the workers for an outing at the Singapore Zoo in batches. The reasoning was that an idle mind is the devil's workshop and so we sought to keep them occupied with the excursion. An early suggestion was to bring them to Sentosa to spend a day at the beach. But bearing in mind many couldn't swim, that idea was discarded for safety issues.

Having messages displayed in Singapore's four official languages was irrelevant at the Brani Dormitory. We learned that we had to display important messages on fire safety and personal hygiene using simple infographics or had them translated into other languages that the workers understood.

The social capital was built up steadily and the RWS work site did not suffer any stoppages due to workers downing tools or health matters. The closest call we had was when shuttle buses bringing the workers from the worksite to the dormitory were late for some reason. Voices were raised and the situation quickly dissolved into an angry shouting match between a bus attendant whom the workers said was rude and the tired workers. SOC was activated. From what I recall, the SOC troop drove along the causeway into Sentosa, made a loop and drove back to the mainland in full view of the workers. The message was loud and clear. Not a single SOC trooper had to disembark from the Ang Chias and the workers reformed the queue to wait for the resumptionn of the shuttle buses.[The bus attendant was counselled and we never had a repeat of that incident.]

Thankfully we never had a pandemic on the scale of COVID-19. Having been through SARS, the former SPF officers and I both resolved to keep the Brani quarters a liveable and pleasant place to stay.

To dormitory operators and officials tasked with the quarantine of those 20,000 workers, take care of them well with proper allocation of space. Maintain onsite infrastructure like toilets and shower areas properly. Get ground feedback to prevent issues from festering unnoticed. Go the extra mile to make the place liveable.

I wish the dormitory operators fighting the COVID-19 situation all the very best. Remember to raise and sustain emotional goodwill as much as possible. Your sincerity will not go unrecognised and they will repay your goodwill.


(Above) Text used by RWS in 2009/2010 for a printed collateral to thank its construction workers.


R said...

Thank you for such insight. I hope this is being read by the relevant authorities? If not, how can we bring it to their attention?

David Boey said...

Hopefully their social media monitoring picks it up. Left enough key words in the header and text for search engines. Or you could please share on FB or other platforms?

I hope the dorm operators have spent at least SOME EFFORT to make their residents feel welcome. If they're starting relationship building from a cold start, then they'll face problems especially in the midst of a crisis.

Genting's approach was simple: If management had to tell the dorm operator that toilets were dirty/inoperable or inform them of unsanitary conditions, then the block supervisor or estate manager would have to go. We walked the ground every week for inspection. Thankfully, no big issues.

Am frankly quite shocked to see living conditions in today's dorms, as circulated on social media. The dorm on Brani 10 years ago was far better.

Stay safe.


Unknown said...

Oh David,

That poster brings back much memories. In fact I think I might still have the original artwork!