At the Migrant Workers’ Centre Recreation Club, about 20km west of Singapore’s central business district, the men who help keep the city-state running spend a weekday evening surrounded by a 2-metre-high fence.
Inside, across a sprawling concrete courtyard, vending machines dispense face masks and food stalls offer halal food to south Asian labourers who sip beers on plastic chairs.
More than two years after Singapore announced its first Covid-19 lockdown, spaces such as this, one of eight so-called recreation centres located on the outer reaches of the island, are the only places where thousands of workers are allowed to freely spend time outside their residences.
“A Singapore citizen, they can access anywhere,” said Dhanu, a technician from India who lives with other migrant workers in a dormitory near the recreation centre. “That’s not fair . . . It’s discrimination.”
To much fanfare in April, the Singapore government lifted almost all its remaining Covid measures, including restrictions on travel and nightclubs. The city-state’s easing of restrictions has been welcomed by businesses and encouraged high-earning professionals to relocate from stricter cities such as Hong Kong.
But despite very high vaccination rates, the freedom of many of the island’s poorest workers remains severely curtailed.
Of the roughly 280,000 workers who live in dormitories, a maximum of 25,000 are permitted to travel outside the recreation centres or their workplaces on weekdays — and only on the condition that they tell authorities where they are going and limit their trips to eight hours. On weekends, 50,000 are allowed out.
Campaigners said the government was still using other pandemic measures to control foreign workers.
“The lockdown is still happening for the workers,” said Jolovan Wham, former director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, a support group in Singapore. “But they are allowed to come out to work. So people see them and it perhaps creates the impression they are allowed out to the community.”
Singapore’s work permit holders, who typically come from poorer Asian countries to do domestic and manual labour, form the backbone of the city-state’s economy. At the end of last year, there were about 849,700 work permit holders, compared with just 161,700 foreign professionals and a native population of about 3.5mn.
But they have long suffered out of sight. Often packed into concrete blocks far from the glass apartment towers in the city centre and working long hours at construction sites or shipyards, their interactions with locals are more regulated than higher-paid foreigners. They even require government approval to marry or start a family with a Singapore citizen.
Their plight came to international attention two years ago, when Covid-19 spread rapidly through cramped dormitories. By late April 2020, hundreds of foreign workers were becoming infected each day, with Singapore reporting the third-highest number of cases per capita in the world.
The government responded harshly, quarantining workers in dormitories where more than a dozen men were often packed into one room and as many as 200 shared washing facilities.
But following widespread reports of attempted suicides by workers confined in such conditions, authorities committed to improving standards. At two new sites announced last September, the number of men in each room will be limited to 12, with each person allowed a minimum space of 4.2 square metres.
Debbie Fordyce, president of support group TWC2, said the new buildings were “better in some ways”. But she also raised concerns that workers were being moved out of normal housing and into dormitories where surveillance had become “much more stringent”.
In April, the government lifted the requirement for Singaporeans to check-in at most venues using a contact tracing app. But migrants are still required to register at their dormitory rooms twice a day, with employers able to monitor their movements using a separate app, DormWatch.
“It became easier to confine people,” said Fordyce, citing an incident this year when dormitory security initially prevented a man from going to the hospital without his employer’s permission.
At least 98 per cent of workers living in dormitories are fully vaccinated against Covid, according to the government. But Lawrence Wong, Singapore’s prime minister-in-waiting and co-chair of its Covid task force has defended the restrictions, arguing in comments cited by the local press that they protect migrants.
Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower said applications by migrants to visit the community were approved “almost automatically”. Activities and events had resumed at dormitories and recreation centres, allowing workers to “enjoy their rest days”.
“MOM will continue to provide more flexibility for migrant workers to visit the community,” the ministry said.
Despite the restrictions, wide-eyed workers continue to arrive in Singapore, lured by the hope of a better life. Dhanu, a masters graduate who came this year, said he eventually hopes to do his PhD at a Singapore university.
But some veteran workers may be losing heart. Sagar, a handyman, said he was still repaying the loan he took out to move to Singapore 14 years ago.
Friends had told Sagar he would earn a high salary in the city-state, but after arriving he was left “crying every day”. “The dream and the reality are not the same,” he said.