In lockdown for 18 months, Singapore’s migrant workers yearn for freedom.
Over 90 percent of the workers who live in dormitories in the country are now fully vaccinated. They are still under tight restrictions.
Rubel, a 30-year-old roofer from Bangladesh, is among more than 300,000 migrant workers currently living under lockdown restrictions in Singapore that essentially prevent them from doing anything other than going from their crowded dorms to work and back to their dorms again.
When the pandemic began, Rubel shared a single room with about 30 people, he said, and there were 10 bathrooms for the 100 people in his building — conditions that he has tolerated because he can take in 28 Singapore dollars a day (about $20), plus overtime, which he sends home to his wife and young son.
But the toll on his mental health is growing.
“While we are grateful for many things, I can’t breathe,” he said.
Singapore’s pandemic restrictions on migrant workers began in April 2020. The country’s Ministry of Manpower said they were targeted for lockdowns because “the vast majority” of coronavirus infections in the country were coming from the dormitories where such workers live.
Now, more than 90 percent of migrant workers in the dorms are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. And despite that high inoculation rate, the strict regulations have remained in place, effectively trapping the workers inside crowded, uncomfortable and unsafe conditions.
“I really hope that we can get permission soon go to outside, as it really has been very long,” Rubel said.
Two weeks ago, the government introduced a pilot program to allow up to 500 vaccinated workers a week to visit predetermined locations for up to six hours — a move that Alex Au, the vice president of Transient Workers Count, Too, an organization that works with migrant workers in Singapore, described as “madness.”
“It would take 600 weeks, or 12 years, to give all the migrant workers a chance to go outside,” he said, adding that the pilot program also did not meet the workers’ emotional and social needs.
Jeremy Lim, a professor at the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said the lockdown had taken a tremendous toll on the workers’ mental health.
Both Professor Lin and Mr. Au said there had been an increase in suicides among migrant workers in Singapore, though the government has denied any increase. And a study by Yale-N.U.S. College found that restricted movement for people living in the dorms was associated with higher levels of stress and depression.
“From a public health point, there is no danger of letting the workers out of their dorms,” Professor Lin said.
The government and other organizations have created telephone lines to help migrant workers deal with mental health issues. But Professor Lim said the best solution was to let migrant workers move more freely so that they can reintegrate into society and reestablish social connections.
As for Rubel, he said he had a plan for what to do when he is allowed to move freely around Singapore, where 79 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.
“I need meet my friends and sit outside,” he said.