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Foreign Employee Dormitories Bill Second Reading Speech by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Minister for Manpower, 20 January 2015, 3:00 PM, Parliament

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Minister for Manpower, Parliament

  1. Madam Speaker, I beg to move, ‘That the Bill be now read a second time.’

  2. We all want to maintain and strengthen the harmonious industrial relations we have here in Singapore. Managing our foreign workforce well is part of that effort and is a wide-ranging topic. Much has been done and other new measures would also be introduced in good time. This Bill is one part of the broader effort. It is the result of work put in over the past few years and specifically addresses the regulation of larger dormitories.
  3. I understand that there are current concerns regarding the housing and living conditions of some foreign workers, and I appreciate the feedback that Members of this House and also fellow Singaporeans have been providing. Indeed, there is a comprehensive set of existing rules which regulate the living conditions of foreign employees, safeguard their safety and well-being, and reduce disamenities on the neighbours. These apply to all forms of foreign worker accommodation, and cover areas such as building and fire safety, minimum living space, and hygiene standards. These standards are in place, and are enforced, and will continue to be so. Many of the unsafe or unsanitary conditions that some Members have referred to are conditions that already contravene these existing rules; and we have taken, and will continue to take, firm action against errant parties. All relevant Government agencies such as the Building and Construction Authority (BCA), the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) and the National Environment Agency (NEA) are committed to not only step up enforcement of existing requirements and deter such transgressions, but to also continue to raise these standards over time.
  4. So, why is this Bill needed? First, Government’s longer-term view is that the accommodation needs of Work Permit Holders are best met in such dormitories, where there are self-contained living, social and recreational facilities. We have been launching new and larger Purpose Built Dormitory (PBD) sites over the past few years, and will continue doing so to meet housing demand for the foreign workforce, especially for the Construction, Marine and Process sectors. Such larger PBDs will form an increasingly prominent part of the foreign worker housing landscape.
  5. Second, and more importantly, there will be different concerns due to the scale of the developments. This Bill is therefore a progressive measure aimed at ensuring better design parameters and requirements that would be woven into the development of new PBDs.
  6. Do note that the existing regulations will continue to apply to both larger and smaller dormitories. The new regulations complement rather than replace existing ones.

    Foreign Employee Dormitories Bill
  7. Madam, let me now move into the key provisions of the Bill.
  8. We propose to impose additional requirements on larger dormitories with 1,000 beds or more through a licensing regime. Dormitories which meet the threshold will be required to obtain a licence, in addition to complying with all existing regulatory standards. It includes existing dormitories which already house 1,000 foreign workers; or are approved to house this number of workers, even if they currently do not.
  9. Broadly, the new licensing framework will mandate requirements that cover public health and safety, security and public order, and the provision and maintenance of social and commercial facilities and services. This is by way of licensing conditions which I will elaborate on later. A Commissioner for Foreign Employee Dormitories will be appointed to oversee the administration of the new Bill.
  10. The licensing regime will effectively cover all current and upcoming PBDs, as well as all dormitories on industrial premises, and even on-site workers’ quarters that meet the 1,000-bed threshold. All the new PBDs coming onstream will meet this threshold. Over the next two years, as more PBDs become operational, these higher standards will accordingly benefit a greater proportion of foreign workers.
  11. Then, there is also a matter of practicality. Some of the requirements that we will impose, such as outdoor recreation spaces and minimarts, are only possible in dorms with a certain physical capacity.
  12. But what about the “smaller” dormitories – those that do not cross the 1,000-bed threshold? As I have mentioned earlier, these “smaller” dorms will continue to be subject to our existing comprehensive regulations to protect the safety and well-being of residents. Residential premises not covered under the Bill will also continue to be subject to existing regulations pertaining to fire and structural safety, hygiene, sub-letting and change of use.

  13. We have also taken care to ensure that there is proper accountability. The holder of the licence will be the operator who is responsible for the day-to-day running of the dormitory. Actions by the operator can have a large impact on the residents’ well-being. Hence, in assessing the suitability of an operator for a licence, we will look at the prospective operator’s financial capacity and his track record; and whether the operator can comply with the licensing conditions.
  14. In addition, the Commissioner may give a directive to the licensed operator to rectify a breach or unsatisfactory operations, or to do anything in the interest of public safety and health. If the licensed operator is prevented by the dorm owner or proprietor from complying with any directive, we propose to be able to also hold the dorm owner or proprietor accountable for failing to comply with the directive.

    Licensing Conditions
  15. I mentioned earlier that the Commissioner for Foreign Employee Dormitories will be able to impose conditions which licensed dormitories must comply with.
  16. Let me provide some examples of the conditions we will be imposing. These have been formulated in consultation with all relevant Government agencies; and informed by MPs, who have worked with us on foreign worker issues.
  17. One example is that operators must develop quarantine plans, in the event of an infectious disease outbreak, and provide sufficient sick bay facilities, based on guidelines set by the Ministry of Health. Another is to require operators to establish Emergency Response Plans in consultation with SCDF and the Police to deal with fires or other potential public order incidents.
  18. To cater to residents’ social and recreational needs, we will require licensed dorms to have indoor and outdoor recreation areas; amenities like ATM machines, minimarts and mail collection points; as well as regular recreational events during Sundays and public holidays. These provide convenient options for workers to socialise. It also means that they do not have to travel far to run simple errands, which eats into their rest hours.

    Penalties and Other Enforcement Mechanisms
  19. The Bill also sets out the proposed penalties for the various infringements and other enforcement actions that might be taken. We have deliberately set relatively high penalties as a deterrent. We have also provided for a broad suite of tools to allow the Commissioner to require that errant parties remedy their breaches.
  20. The highest proposed penalty is for operating an unlicensed dormitory under Clause 7, and is a fine of up to $500,000, or imprisonment of up to two years, or both, for a first offence. For a repeat offence, the penalty will be doubled. We are also proposing a substantial penalty for the breach of each licensing condition. Clause 11 provides that the maximum penalty is a fine of up to $50,000, or imprisonment of up to one year, or both, for each condition contravened.
  21. Licensed operators who intend to cease operating a dormitory must apply to the Commissioner for approval at least 28 days in advance. This is to provide sufficient lead time for employers and dormitory residents to secure alternative accommodation. Cessation of operations without the Commissioner’s approval is an offence under Clause 20.
  22. Under Clause 28, the Commissioner may choose to compound certain offences under the Bill, which are generally less severe in nature. This will allow for flexibility to act against less egregious breaches in a calibrated manner.
  23. In addition, we have put in place various provisions to ensure that any non-compliance can be remedied:
  24. Firstly, under Clause 13, the Commissioner may issue a compliance directive to require the operator or proprietor to carry out specific instructions to remedy breaches or unsatisfactory operations, or in the interests of public health or safety.
  25. If rectification is not done to the satisfaction of the Commissioner, the Commissioner can also step in to carry out any works specified in the directive, and recover the costs incurred from the licensed operator or proprietor.
  26. Secondly, under Clause 15, the Commissioner may issue a business restriction directive. Dormitories that are issued a business restriction directive can continue housing existing residents, but will not be allowed to renew or extend existing tenancy agreements, or enter into new contracts for a specified period.
  27. Additionally, the Commissioner also has the power to require the operator to furnish a performance bond, suspend a license for up to six months, or revoke a licence. The Commissioner may also disqualify persons from managing or holding licences to operate dormitories for specified periods. The offences under the new legislation must be effectively enforced on the ground. To this end, officers who are appointed as dormitory inspectors will be provided with the necessary powers to enter, search and collect evidence from premises. These powers take reference from those currently accorded to inspectors under similar legislation, such as the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act and the Employment Agencies Act. Our inspectors will also be empowered to arrest suspected unlicensed operators or proprietors. I wish to assure the House that our officers will exercise these enhanced powers judiciously – balancing health and safety imperatives while minimising disruptions to business continuity where possible.

    Industry Engagement and Transitional Arrangements
  28. Ultimately, it is in our interest to ensure that the new legislation can be practically implemented. To this end, we have extensively engaged the dormitory industry over the course of the last year. The industry has been largely supportive of the need for additional regulations for the larger dorms.
  29. Nevertheless, we understand that existing large dormitories that were built based on earlier tender specifications may not be able to meet the new standards being set. We will therefore exercise some flexibility in implementation. We will allow a six-month transition period from the date the proposed Bill comes into effect in the second half of 2015 to enable them to level up their standards and obtain a licence. We will also provide some assistance to dorm operators to ease the transition, to mitigate the increased costs resulting from the additional requirements.

    Other FW Management Initiatives
  30. Beyond the current Bill, I wish to assure Members that work on other foreign worker management initiatives is ongoing, and different public sector agencies are doing their part. For example, agencies are keeping a close watch on areas where there are already clusters of foreign worker housing, especially where infrastructure, like roads and sewers, are unable to support further intensification. Since November last year, the Urban Redevelopment Authority has identified 12 industrial estates where it will no longer approve applications to convert factory space into new foreign workers’ dormitories, as well as applications to increase the number of workers in existing factory-converted dorms.
  31. The Government has also been launching dedicated foreign worker recreation centres, particularly in areas where large numbers of foreign workers are housed. These centres provide alternative gathering spots for workers, and offer a wider range of amenities that individual dormitories may not be able to. There are currently four such centres and more will be launched over the next two years. In addition, we will step up measures to educate foreign workers about Singapore laws and social norms. For known foreign worker gathering areas, we can deploy additional uniformed auxiliary police officers and devote extra resources to step up cleaning efforts to meet the needs of residents living nearby. Our agencies also stand ready to work together, as we have done so, with the MPs and grassroots leaders to address local issues in a coordinated manner.

  32. Madam Speaker, this Bill is the result of a lot of effort and work done over the past few years. There have been extensive consultations with stakeholders and Members of the House. It is the culmination of intensive inter-ministry work over a long period.
  33. This Bill gives us greater regulatory powers as larger PBDs are built to better address the housing and living needs of foreign workers. Due to the different dynamics that come with larger sites, it is necessary for the Government to start up-stream and to put in place these additional regulations. There are existing regulations which are enforced, and we will continue to monitor, improve and strengthen them. Going forward, we will be seeing many more PBDs built of this scale, hence, it is important to add on some of these additional requirements because the nature and dynamics of a larger dorm are quite different from some of the smaller ones. The concerns surrounding smaller dorms can be addressed in different ways.
  34. I would like to thank everyone who had contributed to making this Bill possible. With these enhanced levers, I am confident that we will be able to provide a good and safe living environment for dormitory residents and manage the dormitories’ potential impact on their surrounding communities.
  35. Managing our foreign workforce is a wide-ranging topic, and is being addressed on many fronts. This Bill in particular addresses a specific area of concern, which is how best we regulate the larger dormitories.
  36. With that, Madam, I beg to move.

Foreign Employee Dormitories Bill