December 21, 2008 Sunday

Town of their own for foreign workers?

By Mavis Toh

Shopping malls, canteens, cinemas, remittance centres and even beer gardens.

If this plan for a housing estate by a Singapore company is approved, these facilities are what the residents - foreign workers - stand to enjoy.

Mini Environment Services (MES) wants to build an estate to house 25,000 workers. It now has 19,500 living in four dormitories in Kaki Bukit, Penjuru Road and Kian Teck Lane.

The estate will come with void decks and sky gardens, like in HDB estates, to provide meeting points.

In September, Foreign Minister George Yeo said the Ministry of National Development is 'seriously considering how to create townships for foreign workers which are sustainable and self-contained'.

This followed the Serangoon Gardens saga where many residents were unhappy with a plan to convert a school in the area to house up to 600 workers.

The proposal was approved in October but with new measures put in place to tackle issues such as traffic congestion.

The spike in the number of foreign workers - last year, it rose by 102,000 to 577,000 - has created a housing shortage.

MES director Shaik Mohamed said the firm submitted its plan to the Government in October.

The Ministry of National Development (MND), Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) told The Sunday Times that MES has shared its concepts with them.

They added, however, that it is 'not seeking approval with respect to any specific parcel of land allocated for housing'.

MES, set up in 1976, is partnering Surbana International and Certis Cisco in this project.

Surbana, formerly known as HDB Corp, has developed the designs while Certis Cisco will look into the security issues.

MES estimates that it will be pumping $200 million into the project and hopes to secure land for it in Jurong.

It believes the current downturn is the best time to start work since the cost of building materials has fallen.

'We foresee the economy bouncing back in two or three years. And that's a nice time-frame for the development to be completed,' said Mr Shaik.

MES has designed two such communities in Abu Dhabi and Doha.

The facility in Doha, valued at between 3.5 billion Qatar riyals (S$1.4 billion) and 4 billion Qatar riyals, comes with a motel, polyclinic and canteen. It will house 50,000 workers once it is ready in three years' time and MES will run it as facility manager.

With the Singapore project, MES hopes to set a new standard for other industry players to follow.

Despite the amenities, it will still charge the current rent of between $150 and $180 per worker per month.

Though it might take a longer time to recoup the investment, MES said it is in it for the long haul.

'We're sacrificing a good portion of land for recreation; workers need their own place too. If our clients are healthy, we will benefit as well,' said Mr Shaik.

Earlier this month, the Government announced plans to release 10 sites islandwide for temporary foreign-worker dormitories to house 20,000 people.

MES, however, said it might be a wiser move to gather workers near a big development rather than scatter them across the island, which would raise transport costs.

'Hopefully, the proposal will come through and we can complete the project in 21/2 years,' said Mr Shaik.

MND, MOM and MTI said they will consider various development models in evaluating proposals for new dorms, taking into account supply, demand and socio-economic considerations.

Good but not foolproof idea

Having a self-contained township to live in is welcome news but it does not mean that foreign workers will not venture outside of it.

Foreign workers whom The Sunday Times spoke to said they are happy to learn about the proposed township that will feature amenities such as remittance centres and beer gardens.

'There's nothing much to do after work now. If our dorms have more facilities, it will be great,' said Chinese construction worker Ding Zhu, 34.

'As long as we don't have to pay for it,' he added.

But on his days off, he, like most others, said he will still want to visit places such as Chinatown, Little India and Geylang to meet friends and shop.

Indeed, feedback about the value of such facilities was mixed from those who deal with foreign workers.

Mr Jolovan Wham, executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, welcomes it.

He said the township plan would meet not only the workers' basic needs but also their social and recreational ones, which are 'very important since they are so far from home'.

'Many workers are now staying in unsuitable places that don't meet safety standards. A new place which will ensure such standards will be good,' he added.

But Mr William Tan, director of Foreign Recruitment Centre, doubts facilities like cinemas and shopping malls will be fully utilised by the workers.

'Their one objective is to make money and not spend it on recreation. They won't stay in the vicinity seven days a week; they'll still choose to travel out,' he said.

Mr Wham's main concern, however, is whether the self-contained community will isolate the foreign workers.

'We need to be more pro-active and include foreign workers in our grassroots activities. People fear them because they don't interact with them,' he said.

Mavis Toh