Singapore's Minister for Manpower, Josephine Teo, has issued a statement reviewing the Ministry of Manpower's (MOM) initiatives to fight COVID-19 on the economic as well as public health front, covering support for both Singaporeans and migrant workers. 

On the economic front

Following are some highlights of the initiatives shared:

  • In April, over S$7bn  were paid out to employers through the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS). This will help co-fund wages of over 1.9 million local employees. Later this month, more than $4bn will be paid out additionally.
  • By May, over 62,000 employers would have received rebates totalling S$675mn to help employers meet their obligations to their foreign employees during the Circuit Breaker. Another S$675mn is expected to be paid out by July.
  • Support for lower-wage workers:
    • For those in a. Many of them are in essential services and are continuing to work. They will get enhanced Workfare payouts which took effect in January, of up to 4,000 dollars annually.
    • 400,000 workers will get extra S$3,000 each in cash support through the Workfare Special Payment, in two tranches (July and October).
  • Total Workfare payouts this year will be about S$2.2bn.
  • National Wages Council's guidelines encouraged companies to use any lull in their business to train their workers.
  • SkillsFuture Singapore's Enhanced Training Support Package that covers up to 90% of course fees for employers in selected sectors. Many courses come with absentee payroll that give employers in all sectors extra wage support - 90% of the hourly basic salary up S$10 per hour.
  • SkillsFuture Enterprise Credit of S$10,000 further helps employers pay for up to 90% of out-of-pocket expenses that are not already subsidised.

Minister Teo noted that not all employers have been impacted to the same degree. "Those in better shape financially should use all the government support to provide their employees with a more generous baseline wage. Others who are financially stressed and face poor business prospects should be frank with their unions and employees."

"One thing is clear: employers should not act unilaterally and put their employees on prolonged no-pay leave or reduced pay, without their consent."

Efforts to support freelancers and self-employed persons (SEPs):

  • The SEP Income Relief Scheme (SIRS) will pay out close to S$1bn of cash support to over 100,000 SEPs, with the first payment in end of May.
  • NTUC's SEP Training Support Scheme (STSS) now provides an hourly training allowance of S$10, i.e. about S$400 for a week-long course. About 1,800 SEPs will benefit from the scheme. 

Initiatives for hiring and job support:

  • Through the SGUnited Jobs initiative, more than 16,000 immediate jobs vacancies have been made available, higher than the initial target of 10,000 jobs.
  • The public sector has partnered NTUC’s Job Security Council to place more than 3,000 individuals from affected sectors to take on jobs such as safe distancing ambassadors and care ambassadors in various hospitals.
  • In sectors that are still hiring, for example Security, WSG will ramp up the capacity of Professional Conversion Programmes.
  • Through the SkillsFuture Mid-Career Support package, employers can receive a hiring incentive which provides 20% salary support, capped at S$6,000 over six months. This is for new hires aged 40 and above hired through an eligible skills training programme.
  • SGUnited Traineeships Programme helps fresh graduates gain industry experience, build up their resumes and boost their chances of securing jobs in the future. The Government funds 80% of the monthly training allowance for up to 12 months.
  • There are now more than 4,000 traineeship opportunities offered by 280 organisations. 

She noted: "We recognise the many efforts by businesses and workers to adjust to the new situation as it evolves, and help one another weather the storm. As much as we can, MOM will continue to work with our sister agencies to support businesses and protect livelihoods."

On the health front

Minister Teo shared some context: "We work mainly in the economic and social spheres. Workplace safety and health has always been high on our agenda. Now, it has taken on new meaning."

A timeline featuring some of the highlights of initiatives taken in this regard:

  • To help prevent imported cases, MOM about 80,000 applications to return but could only approve a minority. The officers dealt with many appeals.
  • MOM was tasked to ensure strict compliance for those under Stay-Home Notice (SHN). For this, with GovTech's help, it developed a system of monitoring and enforcement, which was later adapted for Singaporeans returning from abroad, to protect their families.
  • In mid-March, when Malaysia announced the Movement Control Order (MCO), MOM worked with Ministry of National Development (MND), the Housing Development Board (HDB), the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) and the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), as well as community groups, to source for suitable accommodation to help affected businesses.
    • Most of the affected Malaysians have settled into new accommodation in Singapore. About one in ten subsequently returned to Malaysia, especially when Singapore introduced the Circuit Breaker.

Affirmative action to support migrant workers:

  • A day after the first confirmed case in Singapore, MOM reached out to dormitory operators to be more vigilant and to step up hygiene. Quarantine facilities were inspected, materials were produced in the workers’ native languages, and subsequently, non-essential facilities in the dormitories like gyms and TV rooms were closed. Meal-times and recreational hours were staggered. Intermixing between blocks was stopped.
  • MOM officers also fanned out on weekends, to advise migrant workers to observe safe distancing measures and disperse big groups that were gathering at popular hangouts.

How did the virus later spread among migrant workers?

Minister Teo provided a timeline and explanation on this in response to queries by present Ministers:

  • The most prominent cluster of infected migrant workers was from Seletar Aerospace Heights, which was detected in February. It involved five workers all staying at five different locations, only two of which were dormitories. Thereafter, there was no indication of higher prevalence of COVID-19 amongst migrant workers, compared to the general community.
  • The epidemiological studies provide some preliminary clues on further spread of the virus.
    • Within the dormitories that have clusters, not all blocks or rooms are equally affected.
    • Across different dormitories, infected workers were linked through common work sites, where it was not uncommon for them to take breaks together, share food and utensils.
    • Likewise, infected workers from different dormitories had gathered during their rest days to socialise and shop, for example at Mustafa.
    • Back in the dormitories, workers spent time with their friends, cooking, eating and relaxing together.
  • The virus may have spread through all of these activities, much like how it spread among family members, religious groups and even colleagues.
  • Once evidence emerged that the virus had spread in the dormitories, MOM mobilised whole-of-government resources. An Inter-agency Taskforce was set up, comprising officers from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), the Home Team, Ministry of Health (MOH), MCI, MND, many agencies.
    • Including the private sector recruits, nearly 3,000 staff are now deployed to look after the health and wellbeing of migrant workers.
  • Multiple channels of transmission among migrant workers, as appear to be the case, means a multi-faceted approach has to be deployed to deal with the outbreak. A focus on rooming arrangements on their own, may not prevent a recurrence. 

Given the last update, MOM has been working on a three-pronged strategy: Contain the spread of the virus in the dormitories where clusters have formed; prevent spread in those with no cluster, and move out and test all workers who are still needed for essential work. 

This strategy is executed using three key enablers: Forward Assurance Support (FAST) teams; Medical Support Plan that is holistic; and roping in dormitory operators and employers to improve hygiene and provide necessities.

The first phase of the Taskforce:

  • Getting the basics right. Among the safe distancing measures introduced, communal cooking was stopped. Officers then worked round the clock to ensure that meals suitable for the varied diets were delivered in a timely manner (more than 10 million catered meals have been served).
  • Coordinated schedules for workers to use toilets so as to prevent mixing, making sure the dormitories are kept clean, and attending to workers’ feedback and requests, such as getting paid and money remittances.
  • Nearly 200 FAST teams are now deployed.
  • More than 10,000 workers in essential services were moved out and progressively tested so they can continue to work safely. Workers from dormitories that had been gazetted as Isolation Areas were not moved as they would pose a higher risk of infecting others. Further movements in and out of dormitories were stopped to prevent cross-infections in both directions.
  • WIFI access and nearly 300,000 SIM cards have been provided so the workers can keep in touch with family and friends.

The second phase of the Taskforce:

  • Getting the medical operations right: The medical support plan was fully fleshed out, the infrastructure and personnel steadily built up.
  • The Regional Healthcare Systems deploy teams of doctors, nurses and technicians to each of the 43 purpose-built dormitories (PBDs). They tend to workers who are unwell, swab those who have shown acute respiratory symptoms, manage the cases that need to be sent to other facilities, and assess if the workers are well enough to return to their rooms.
  • Four medical posts have been set up at the Tuas South, Kranji, Woodlands and Kaki-Bukit migrant worker recreation centres to cover the larger factory-converted dormitories (FCDs) and construction temporary quarters (CTQs).
    • For workers in the smaller FCDs and CTQs, private healthcare groups, as well as the nation-wide network of Public Health Preparedness Clinics (PHPCs) and Polyclinics were brought in.
  • If any worker was unwell, they got the same care as any Singaporean would. Furthermore, the cost of all tests and treatment is borne by the Government.
  • With the help of the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS), special arrangements were made for the Muslim workers to get their sahur, or pre-dawn meals at 3 am. Over 1.5 tonnes of dates were distributed.

Are these measures working?

"The situation within the 43 PBDs is largely stable now. The picture among the thousand plus FCDs and CTQs is much more mixed and taking up much bandwidth," Minister Teo shared. 

"In many dormitories, there is active case-finding and swab exercises so that we can isolate and treat infected workers, and break transmissions. Most of the workers are well and those tested positive are on the path to recovery. The full results of these efforts will however take time to show."

However, she clarified that outside of the dormitories, another concern was identified. Infections among workers in the Construction sector were noticeably higher than the general community, and have not tapered off - thus the introduction of the mandatory SHN for this sector, which has been put in place for a total of four weeks, or two incubation cycles.

The third phase is about getting the recovery right. "This involves building up community recovery facilities (CRFs) and housing recovered workers in suitable accommodation to minimise the risks of recurrent transmissions," said Minister Teo. 

This involves several steps, such as:

  • Many workers will be re-housed and have to get used to new friends and habits.
  • Many employers will have to adjust to their workers being in different locations with new arrangements.
  • New strategies to monitor the health of the workers. For example, plans to issue pulse oximeters and require the worker to take readings regularly. 

In conclusion, she shared: "The Taskforce is focused on getting its job done. Altogether, they are looking after about 400,000 migrant workers, bigger than the size of two Ang Mo Kio GRCs! This is just mind-boggling, if you think about it."

"In every phase, the situation has demanded a scale and speed of response that is unprecedented. The Taskforce is keenly aware of its mission. They know it is critical to get things right, and to do it with heart. We will fulfil our commitment to the workers and pave the way for work and business to resume safely when conditions allow."

"We have said right from the beginning that we have a responsibility to our migrant workers. Many of them made personal sacrifices to come to Singapore to work and have made significant contributions which we appreciate deeply. We will do everything within our means to make sure that they too win the fight against COVID-19, and reunite with their families in time to come."

Photo / Minister Josephine Teo's Facebook