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Testing Positive for Isolation

How Singaporean migrant workers are reeling from the impacts on familial relationships post-COVID

A migrant worker living in a factory-converted dormitory in in Singapore. Photograph: Edgar Su/Reuters

In the early months of 2020, Singapore entered the “Circuit Breaker”, where all social gatherings were banned and Singaporeans had to restrict themselves within their four walls (Government of Singapore, 2020). The extreme measures were taken to knock down infection rates that had been soaring at this point in time; a daily high of 120 cases (Baker, 2020). Of course, being able to have family members under the same roof is a privilege not enjoyed by all. The migrant workers in Singapore faced tougher measures for most parts of the pandemic, not being able to leave their dorms entirely and even having to schedule their bathroom visits (TWC2, 2022). These workers could not visit their families in person and even during calls, had to converse in a room that housed up to twelve other individuals (TWC2, 2022).

The reality of lockdown

Dealing with sudden isolation, many migrant workers were understandably terrified. “I am alone. The room is big, clean, the food is good. Then, the heart is not happy. Alone” said a worker who had been transferred to an isolation center after testing positive (Yee et al., 2021).

And yet, during phone calls with their family, many chose to keep their diagnosis a secret. “I never inform them that I am affected, positive. But I say our room has some problem, so the government took us out and put in this place to take care us. It’s a safe place for us. I didn’t say I’m affected. Because if I tell them, my mother, my wife too … too much feeling, will cry.”

The devastation of the economy during the pandemic was felt incredibly among lower paid migrant workers, who saw a sharp decline in the number of construction sites they were assigned to. Hence, many workers were also unable to provide for their families financially: “They have no money … I feel very bad. Very bad feeling. This COVID-19, very bad situation”.

A majority of migrant workers are able-bodied men, who wish to live up to the societal expectations of being the breadwinner (Yee et al., 2021). Being unable to do so crippled this sense of “fulfilling their role”; it made them feel as though they were unable to “provide”, and hence “failing” to be the bedrock of the security and happiness of their families. Their hesitation to engage in open communication stems from such expectations as well, and they retreat further into their shells to “protect” their families. Many migrant workers were thus overwhelmed with isolation, low self-esteem, and the lurking shadow of depression.

Post-COVID: Return to normalcy?

Now, three years later, restrictions have been loosened. Migrant workers do not require permission to leave their dorms and are able to travel without declaring their movement to the authorities (Ministry of Manpower, 2023). However, this does not necessarily equate to a return to “normalcy”. The signs of depression and anxiety developed during the pandemic continue to exist in the back of the workers’ minds (Geddie et al., 2020). In fact, 22% of workers suffer from some form of psychological distress, creeping into familial interactions post-pandemic (Yeoh et al., 2022).

Additionally, we have to take into account the burdensome levies workers are forced to pay to their employers, preventing them from sending the necessary amounts to their families (Geddie et al., 2020). Institutionally, this means that migrant workers are struggling to fulfil their “duties” to their families:

Sharif Uddin, a 45-year-old- migrant worker, explained that, “The dreams of migrants ... don’t get fulfilled very soon. It takes really long to chase. … As years pass – one year, two years, those initial big dreams and aspirations slowly start fading away.” Hence, coupled with what we’ve learnt about their COVID ordeal, migrant workers are and will continue to struggle to feel “strong and secure”. Post-COVID, they continue to be unable to bridge these insecurities and stay afloat.

Migrant workers are brought to Singapore to satisfy her low-wage labour addiction, and yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, are not treated with even the most basic form of respect. The pandemic has not only exacerbated the impacts of our decade-long ill treatment of migrant workers, it has also ripped off the false pretexts it used to hide behind (Poole, 2022). The treatment of migrant workers is not in any form “necessary” when it has resulted in poor physical and mental health.

It is easy to forget that migrant workers are not simply “labour”, they are people who too are a part of the familial life and values that Singapore prides itself upon. Post-pandemic, the fear of isolation and inadequacy is embedded within these workers, who view themselves as more disposable. Now, more than ever, it is clear that we have failed to treat and protect them as fellow human beings.

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