Accommodating the Spread – Migrant Worker Accommodation Driving COVID Infections (Pt 2) | Institute for Human Rights and Business

Accommodating the Spread – Migrant Worker Accommodation Driving COVID Infections (Pt 2)

Commentary, 23 July 2020

By Guna Subramaniam, South East Asia Regional Advisor, Migrant Workers Programme, IHRB

COVID-19 and Migrant Workers

As part of our continuing focus on the links between COVID-19 and the business and human rights agenda, IHRB is exploring the impact of the pandemic on migrant workers across Asia and the roles and responsibilities of businesses in addressing these challenges. Most of the 35million+ migrant workers estimated to live and work in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are from Africa or South and Southeast Asia. Across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states, an estimated 10 million migrant workers live and work in major destinations such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. During the pandemic, countries in the GCC and Singapore were ranked in the top ten for infection rates per million, and almost all cases were from migrant workers living in dormitories.

This five part series begins with an overview of the range of challenges facing migrant workers throughout South East Asia as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Subsequent pieces in the series will cover accommodation conditions, discrimination issues, recruitment fees and wage theft, as well as impacts to migrant workers’ remittances back 利来w66老牌home.


The COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted the extent of sub-standard worker accommodations in a number of South East Asian countries and the Gulf states. The stay-at-利来w66老牌home order in many countries resulted in the opposite of the social distancing needed to "flatten the curve” of infections. Poor, dense living conditions in worker dormitories – with as many as 12 to 20 people typically sleeping in each room – escalated the grim wave of COVID-19 infections.

In addition to dormitories, many may live on the upper floors of construction subcontracting firms, in shipping containers, or other temporary housing on work sites – in some cases with cramped rooms housing up to 30 men, no air-conditioning or appropriate ventilation, bed bugs and cockroaches, and often just one toilet shared by up to 80 people or more.

Some of the worst and highest COVID-19 infection rates of migrant workers have been in Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Singapore. As of June 2020, these countries were ranked among the top ten by total cases per million, where the majority of COVID-19 cases are from migrant workers. At mid-July 2020, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait are still in the top 10, while Singapore has dropped to 16th in ranking by total cases per million.

Architects, property developers, dormitory operators, construction companies, and other businesses need to pay attention to living situations.

In Kuwait for example, migrant workers in the construction sector live in workerscamps, where eight people share one bedroom. The camps vary in structure but tend to be overcrowded with no kitchen facilities and no space for self-isolation. Workers who showed symptoms had to stay in their room, shared with seven other roommates, in isolation’ despite the highly contagious nature of the coronavirus. 

Across the Gulf states, migrant workers with COVID-19 infections have been locked-up, laid off and unable to return 利来w66老牌home. Construction workers have mostly been confined to dormitories and stripped of their income. A similar situation was reported in the retail and energy sectors, staffed almost exclusively by migrant workforces. Their plight prompted a coalition from civil society and trade unions to send letters to the Governments of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman to raise their concerns and urge the ities to take action.

The Case of Singapore

In the island city-state of Singapore, there are about 1.2 million migrant workers. Of these, more than 300,000 workers – mostly from Bangladesh, India, and China working in the construction, marine, landscaping, processing and cleaning sectors – live in various types of dormitories across Singapore, from large purpose-built facilities to smaller factory-converted and makeshift living quarters near their worksites. They may live in rooms of about 12 to 20 inhabitants, making social distancing impossible, adding to the risk for virus transmission.

At the beginning of the outbreak, Singapore was lauded as a global success story in its response to the coronavirus. However, by the end of April, the number of coronavirus cases in Singapore increased by 15 times, swelling from 1,000 to more than 15,000 cases. By May, it had the largest number of cases of any country in Southeast Asia – with more than 90% of infections within the migrant workforce.

All migrant workers living in dormitories had to stop work and remain in their quarters while ities moved those not infected and those working in essential services out of the dormitories to be housed separately – in military barracks, unused multi-story carparks and vacant public housing apartments across Singapore. Some were relocated to offshore hostel ships, where they were similarly confined. Advocacy groups warned against these measures, comparing it to COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise ships.

This came despite concerns raised as early as 2013 about overcrowding in dormitories leading to outbreaks of typhus and pneumonia, and later studies highlighting the health risks of “hot-bedding” where the same bed was shared between day-shift and night-shift workers.

Recently, Singapore-based Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) analysed the size and number of workers in a typical dormitory room and how workers have described of their accommodation, against the Singapore building code. TWC2 concluded that the current conditions were inadequate for living conditions and disease risk management, and that improved accommodation was not only for the sake of workers but also better health security for the wider population.

Many businesses report that new workers settle into their roles much faster when they live in decent and dignified accommodation.

Atmosphere of Anxiety and Fear

With thousands of migrant workers confined into such rooms, many have described an atmosphere of anxiety and fear, from not being able to practice social distancing properly as they wonder if they or those near them have been infected.

Many feared an outbreak was inevitable due to such conditions.  

Many also fear they may not have a job after the pandemic, while some worry about their families back 利来w66老牌home who they were unable to return to as most flights were cancelled. 

To lift their spirits, local groups organised fitness competitions presenting a mobile phone to a worker who did the most push-ups, and conducted English classes via Zoom.

Improving Migrant Worker Accomodation 

The quality of workers living environment has a major effect on their physical and psychological well-being.

The provision of decent housing for workers is an important sign that businesses respect and value their employees, and is shown to enhance productivity. Many businesses report that new workers settle into their roles much faster when they live in decent and dignified accommodation. Conversely, poor housing conditions can lead to workers becoming demotivated and unwell, with obvious implications for their ability to perform their work effectively.

To ensure that migrant workers do not return to living in overcrowded and substandard living conditions, architects, property developers, dormitory operators, construction companies, and other businesses must pay adequate attention to the living situations of migrant workers. Responsible property developers should develop codes of conduct and policy guidelines for their operations and their supply chains. State and local officials need to ensure companies perform due diligence which covers all business relationships.

Urgent concerns remain about exorbitant recruitment fees, low wages, job security, and poor access to health care.

A 2019 international minimum standards and humanitarian emergency standards, on issues such as personal space and privacy and related health and safety conditions of accommodation provided by employers. ILO Recommendation No. 115 concerning Workers’ Housing sets out important guidance for employers providing accommodation. It covers a range of key principles including rooms to be arranged so that shifts are separated and that no workers working during the day share a room with workers on night shifts, so-called ‘hot-bedding’.

Our own developing work at IHRB on the built environment also acknowledges the treatment of migrant workers through construction supply chains, and the way in which architectsdecisions can either advance or undermine inclusion.

Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and Ministry of National Development (MND) recently announced new regulations that will be piloted, with temporary structures to house about 60,000 workers by the end of the year and permanent dormitories accommodating up to 100,000 to be built in coming years. Living spaces will be increased from 4.5 square metres to 6 square metres per occupant, higher than some international standards, and each room must have 10 or fewer single-deck beds spaced at least 1 metre apart with one toilet, bathroom, sink and urinal must be allocated for every five beds.

These are encouraging steps that other countries need to follow – but improving living conditions only addresses part of the challenge for migrant workers. Urgent concerns remain about exorbitant recruitment fees, low wages, job security, and poor access to health care. The indebtedness of migrant workers due to excessive recruitment fees is a significant factor in ubiquity of degrading working and living conditions.



Unsatisfactory accommodation, recruitment fees, low wages and poor access to health care are just some of the issues that result from discriminatory attitudes and policies towards migrant workers. In Part 3, we look at the discriminatory treatment of migrant workers that has surfaced during this global crisis and the underlying and enabling factors.

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