Studies link poor worker housing to high COVID-19 incidence

September 19, 2021

A room in the S11 Dormitory @ Punggol, which is Singapore’s biggest COVID-19 cluster

Worker accommodation in Renaissance Village Duqm

Many COVID-19 studies on cluster cases have worrisome data to show. The biggest hotspots have been substandard accommodations for unskilled migrant workers as they lack the basic but vital requisites of space, hygiene and sanitation.

Singapore is a case in point, drawing mention in several studies. In May 2020, 88% of Singapore’s nationally confirmed cases were migrant workers living in packed dorms, according to a BMJ report on Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The Singapore government has since decided to expand the scope of its Foreign Employee Dormitories Act (FEDA) in a bid to enforce public health and safety, security and public order in all worker accommodations irrespective of their size.

Closer home, an independent study covering Muscat governorate indicated that 61 per cent of the overall confirmed cases between February and July 2020 were from workplace dormitory clusters.

Titled ‘Work Related Clusters of COVID-19 in Muscat Governorate in Oman: Epidemiology & Future Implications’, the study highlights the fact that many businesses in the governorate provide overcrowded housing, shared transportation and shared facilities for workers, all of which led to an alarmingly high transmission rate.

While the International Labour Organization (ILO) lays down the specifics for sharing a space safely, it is unfortunately not unusual to find 20 or more workers living in cramped quarters, sharing one bath and toilet.

The World Health Organization (WHO) term ‘3C’ - crowded places, close contact settings and confined and enclosed spaces – sums up the living conditions of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers across the world. WHO and ILO have always underscored the importance of factoring in health risks to vulnerable groups from epidemics, occupational hazards and natural disasters.

Organisations that cut worker housing costs at the outset or worry about the added cost of improving the facility, could end up paying a bigger price in the form of low worker productivity, time lost due to illnesses and high medical bills especially in current times.

The national impact can be increased risk to nearby communities, additional burden on a nation’s healthcare apparatus, slower economic bounce-back and an unflattering human rights image globally.  

The onus, thus, falls on employers to adhere to the principles, firstly as ethics, and secondly as mandate.