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Written Answer by Mrs Josephine Teo Minister for Manpower to PQ on Addressing Mental Health Challenges Faced by Foreign Workers Affected by Isolation at Dormitories

NOTICE PAPER NO. 6 OF 2020 FOR THE SITTING ON 4 SEPTEMBER 2020

QUESTION NO. 42 FOR WRITTEN ANSWER

MP: Mr Leon Perera

To ask the Minister for Manpower (a) what measures have been put in place to address mental health challenges faced by migrant workers during this period including those who are barred from leaving their living and work spaces; (b) when have these measures been put in place; (c) what is being done to help workers who develop mental health conditions when under confinement; and (d) what steps are taken to ascertain the effectiveness of such measures and to improve on them.

Answer

  1. Since the dormitories were isolated in early April, the Inter-Agency Task Force has recognised that both the physical and mental health of the residents need to be well looked after. These efforts continue even after the dormitories were cleared under the new Assurance, Care & Engagement Group (ACE).  
  2. There are a few channels for workers to seek and get help if they are facing mental distress.  The Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC) runs a 24 hour Helpline with staff experienced in supporting migrant workers.  When necessary, they will escalate cases to professional counsellors.  For serious cases, workers could be referred to mental health specialists in the hospitals for in-person consultations.  During circuit breaker, the MWC Helpline received about 700 calls per week. 
  3. In April, HealthServe also launched a dedicated hotline for migrant workers to access medical information and submit requests for tele-counselling sessions.  Since then, the service has received more than 15,000 enquiries.  Their volunteer counsellors and psychiatrists have helped more than 1,100 workers. 
  4. To help prevent isolation-induced stress in the first place, being able to return to work is important.  It will also address anxiety over job stability.  On this, we have systematically tested every worker in the dormitories and segregated them so that those who are infected can be treated promptly, while those who are not infected or have recovered can be moved into COVID-cleared rooms or blocks. This is necessary to stop further transmission and to help workers return to their work faster.  This process started in June and was completed in mid-August.  As of 31 Aug, close to 90% of workers in the dormitories are able to resume work. 
  5. We have started trials to allow residents of selected cleared dorms to go to Recreation Centres on their rest days at staggered timings. We have also worked with NGOs to conduct activities that help improve the mental well-being of our migrant workers. For instance, the Alliance of Guest Workers’ Outreach (AGWO) recently piloted an organised activity to the parks; and the COVID-19 Migrant Support Coalition (CMSC) has been providing free hair cuts and mental wellness engagement activities at temporary Government-provided accommodation.
  6. Supporting these measures are the Forward Assurance & Support Teams (FAST).  We have started to train and equip our FAST teams to identify and manage mental health issues. MWC’s network of 5,000 Foreign Worker Ambassadors will also proactively look out for distressed migrant workers and try to understand their key concerns so that the right help can be given quickly.   
  7. To address residents’ common concerns, we have assured the workers through our daily bulletins sent through the dormitory operators, MWC Ambassadors and the foreign worker mobile applications.  As one prevalent worry is becoming infected, we have circulated videos of doctors advising workers on how to protect themselves, and of recovered workers sharing their experience, to ease the workers’ anxiety. We also facilitated the departure of workers who wanted to return home.
  8. There are signs that these measures have helped.  After calls to the MWC Helpline spiked to 700 calls per week during circuit breaker, call volume has reduced to around 500 a week now.  This is not too far from the pre-Covid call volume of around 400 a week.  We will continue to monitor and support the workers closely.