SINGAPORE, April 1 — Some Malaysian workers in Singapore are weighing up their options, including heading home, while their employers here try to look for rental flats and cheap hotels or offer them temporary loans to allow them to secure a roof over their heads.
The renewed scramble to sort out accommodation came ahead of the start of the second leg of Malaysia’s nationwide lockdown on Tuesday (March 31) to stop the spread of Covid-19 — now that the Singapore Government’s temporary housing support for these workers has stopped.
At Tuesday’s press briefing by the multi-ministry task force for Covid-19, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo reiterated that the Singapore Government does not intend to extend the accommodation support programme, which had provided S$50 (RM151) a day a worker to offset employers’ costs for the initial two-week lockdown period in Malaysia.
She added that most of the affected workers are now “properly housed” and the queries that the Government had received in the wake of the lockdown had “tapered down a great deal”.
However, TODAY’s interviews with affected employers and employees suggested that at least some Singapore employers and their Malaysian employees face financial challenges to keep the workers housed here.
One of them is Peter Peng, owner of cleaning company Abba Maintenance Services, who previously opened up his own home to three of his eight Malaysian workers who had been in limbo.
He has now rented a Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat in Bukit Merah to house five workers who still needed accommodation.
Peng said that he will absorb the rental cost — between S$3,000 and S$4,000 a month — hoping that it will motivate his employees to do good work in return.
“If it comes to a point where we need the cleaners to share the burden with us, we will do it bit by bit and make the adjustments accordingly,” he added.
To cut down costs over the longer term, security firm Metropolis Security Systems is considering renting several HDB units for six months, at about S$700 a room a month, its general manager, Lek Shao Hua, told TODAY.
With the Government’s help, the company had earlier put up its 80 displaced Malaysian workers in various hotels with a combined cost of about S$36,000.
But this would not be sustainable if the company were to fork out the entire sum without government aid, so the employees were told to turn to the firm for help only if they still could not find housing despite their best efforts.
“We cannot foresee how long this would go on for. We try to look for HDB short-term rental and put more people in one flat… It is more sustainable in the long run,” he said.
For Lek, his firm’s bottom line is squeezed by not just these employees’ needs, but the security firm's customers’ — about one in three of his clients had indicated that they are seeking compensation after the company failed to provide enough security workers in the wake of the lockdown.
“I hope service buyers can take into consideration the insufficient turnaround time to employ new workers to fill up the gap and not impose liquidated damages during this period, but work towards a feasible stepped-down security plan instead,” he added.
Toby Koh, the group managing director of security firm Ademco Security, said that his firm had tried to secure extensions at the two hotels where 26 of his affected Malaysian workers were staying, but could not do so because the hotels were already all booked out for the next 14 days.
His associates then had to call up to 10 hotels to check their rates and availability, only to discover that some hotels had raised their rates, apparently to take advantage of the sudden spike in demand, Koh said.
They eventually settled for Yotel on Orchard Road, which was charging about S$60 a room. The workers moved into their new hotel rooms on Monday, with two workers sharing a room.
Together with the S$10-a-day food subsidy that his firm provides to its workers, the total extra cost for Ademco runs up to about S$15,000 for the added two-week period, Mr Koh pointed out.
A second rush
Some Malaysian work permit holders who usually commute across the border daily told TODAY that they had to scramble again — for the second time this month – to find cheaper temporary accommodation because their employers had stopped supporting them.
Warehouse storekeeper Armel Sharil, who TODAY first found sleeping rough near Kranji MRT Station earlier this month, said that his employer had said it is up to him to seek shelter on his own.
“If they can’t pay for my accommodation, I might consider returning to Johor Baru as I can’t afford to pay for my own,” the 31-year-old said, adding that he cannot afford the high cost of living in Singapore. A meal here can cost him two days' worth of groceries in Johor Baru.
“I love my job and I don’t want to lose it but I have no choice. When I calculate the cost of food and accomodation for two weeks, it adds up to S$500 which can be converted to RM1,500. That’s a lot of money,” he said.
The father of two children aged two and 16 months said that two weeks of being apart from his family has also taken a toll on him.
Azreenawaty Salim, 45, who works as a dishwasher, said that she might return to sleeping rough near Kranji MRT Station on Wednesday night if she could not find shelter elsewhere.
“I don’t have family members or relatives here. My friends are also struggling to find a place to stay,” she said, adding that her employer has provided her with hotel accommodation till April 1.
She said in Malay: “I know the Singapore Government has done its best to help us, we are very grateful for that. Now we need to deal with this problem ourselves.”
A mother of a four-month-old baby who wanted to be known only as Aruna said that her employer provided her with lodgings at a hotel in Little India only up till Tuesday.
Thankfully, she managed to pack and move to a friend’s uncle’s room in Sengkang in the nick of time on the day.
In between, however, she said she had to deal with unsympathetic landlords, one of whom would not let her rent a property unless she paid a S$700 deposit upfront.
“Currently, I don’t have that much money… so I asked to give the deposit once my salary is in, but (the landlord) said, ‘First come first served’,” she said.
“It is all about money... But what to do? We have to stay here for our family.” — TODAY