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Fresh ideas to improve the lives of foreign workers

S11's novel approach in managing dormitories has paid off, says Mr Cheah, as it has generated good word-of-mouth from residents.

IT was a gap that needed to be filled in the foreign worker dormitory sector.

Through working for his family, Jonathan Cheah, managing director of S11 Capital Investments, realised that there was a lot more that dormitory operators can do to make the lives of foreign workers here more comfortable. "Living standards were something that particularly struck me, and being in the business of recruitment, my parents did mention to me that a lot of work and improvement can be done for the dormitories in Singapore," says Mr Cheah in an interview with The Business Times.

With that in mind, he and his business partners seek to foster a welcoming environment at their dormitory, Changi Lodge 2.

There, foreign workers can work out in a fully-equipped gym and unwind in a games room that comes with a foosball table and PlayStation and Xbox gaming consoles.

Their efforts at improving the conditions of foreign workers living in their dormitories and turning this into a financially viable operation won them a spot on the Enterprise 50 list for the first time this year.


The beginnings of Changi Lodge 2 started to blossom in 2010. Mr Cheah was working for his parents then, recruiting blue-collared workers for the maritime, oil and gas, and construction sectors.

Struck by the living conditions of these workers, he started to consider seriously the possibility of venturing into building and operating a foreign workers' dormitory that stands out from the rest.

When a government tender came along, Mr Cheah put in a bid together with business partner Lawrence Lee. Having no prior experience in this field but confident about their prospects after doing their sums, they submitted a proposal.

They won the tender in 2010 to build Changi Lodge 2, and then anxiety set in. Mr Cheah recalls that he and Mr Lee, who now oversees business development at S11, wondered just how watertight their financial models were and where they could find reliable contractors to help build the dormitory.

But there was no time for doubts; work had to be done. "We knew that at the end of the day, when the government awards you a contract, you have to do it," says Mr Cheah.

Within a month, they found a main contractor to start building the dormitory. Along the way, the business partners also had to put proper financial structures in place to ensure that work went smoothly.

The dormitory, spread over 1.7 hectares of land in Changi, became operational in October 2011. It was able to maximise its 4,000-person capacity within nine months, and the company was on track to repay its bank loans within two years.

During this time, the team at S11 made trips to the countries of origin of the Indian, Bangladeshi, Chinese and Myanmar workers they were hosting to get a sense of the environment they come from.

"It was really like a kampung," says Mr Cheah.

The management also conducted monthly focus group discussions to find out from the residents how it can make things better at the dormitory.

These measures helped to fine-tune S11's approach in providing a living environment for the workers that goes beyond basic requirements, hence the well-equipped gym and games room.

The rationale behind this is simple. "The idea is that if you leave them (the workers) on their own, especially on their days off, typically they start to drink, and sometimes a different creature appears when they're drunk," says Mr Cheah. Providing more amenities would help channel their attention towards more wholesome activities and thus create a better environment for all.

"Even though conditions in their (foreign workers') home countries are worlds apart from Singapore's, you cannot expect them to not have the same living conditions and standards of hygiene as Singaporeans; that's why we wanted to fill this gap," says Mr Cheah, who recalls seeing workers living in sub-par housing conditions, with some not even equipped with cooking facilities. As a result, some workers, due to their odd working hours, had to have both their breakfast and lunch at the same time after they come back from their shifts.

S11's novel approach in managing dormitories has paid off. Mr Cheah says that it generated good word-of-mouth for S11 as residents shared details of what their lives were like at Changi Lodge 2 with workers who lived in other dormitories.

Slowly but surely, contractors began to notice that residents of Changi Lodge 2 seemed more content in general. This has helped S11 forge a better relationship with its clients.

Now, Changi Lodge 2 generates an annual turnover of S$15 million.

With the success of Changi Lodge 2, S11 was confident of taking on a bigger project. The same team then set up S11 Granuity Management to bid for a tender for a new dormitory in Punggol, which it won.

This massive dormitory, called PPT Lodge 1B, covers 5.8 hectares of land in Pulau Punggol Timor and has a housing capacity for 14,000 workers. It became operational in February this year.

A quick look at the amenities at PPT Lodge 1B shows a dormitory that places great emphasis on the welfare of the foreign workers who live there - perhaps to a greater degree than at Changi Lodge 2. PPT Lodge 1B has a food court, supermarket, clinic, remittance outlet and even a cinema.

Mr Cheah says that the company's experience in managing Changi Lodge 2 revealed that music and dance form a big part of the culture of Indian and Bangladeshi workers. Thus, when S11 was building its Punggol dormitory, it made a conscious effort to incorporate a cinema within its grounds.

It then collaborated with cinema operator Golden Village to run the two-hall cinema. Each hall seats 200 people. The cinema had its first screening on Sept 3. Since then, there have been nights when the halls were sold out.


Adrian Tang, business development manager at S11 who is also in charge of cinema operations, says that the management wanted to provide the workers with a convenient place to watch their favourite movies and relax.

"This way, they don't have to go all the way into town to catch a movie - this option is just not feasible when you're situated out here in Punggol," he says.

Amenities aside, care has been put into the design of the dormitories to make daily life a bit less demanding for the workers who live there. For one, all dormitory rooms have their own dedicated cooking stations in the communal kitchen. This helps instil a sense of ownership of the cooking areas among the residents and contributes to making the cooking spaces cleaner.

Also, each of the 12 beds in a room has two dedicated power sockets. This gives residents the freedom to charge their mobile phones or plug in a radio or an electric fan after they return from a hard day's work. This also prevents power surges from having too many people using the same socket, notes Mr Tang.

S11's efforts in operating PPT Lodge 1B are clearly seeing results. The dormitory already hosts 9,000 workers and looks set to reach its maximum capacity by March next year.

It generates about S$2.6 million in turnover a month, and could hit an annual turnover of S$55 million when full.

Mr Cheah believes that S11's performance is a good indication of the value that clients see in the business. "We can't simply tell our clients that our dormitory is better, but when the workers are the ones telling our clients that they prefer staying with us . . . it just made this venture all the more meaningful for us," he says.