MARINE company boss Thavaseelan Kumarasamy rents rooms for his workers in three HDB flats in Boon Lay.

It is a win-win situation for him and his employees from India. The flats are located near the shipyards in Tuas, where the men work, and are surrounded by amenities.

Rent is also cheaper. Mr Thavaseelan pays $250 for each worker a month, compared to $300 a month at a purpose-built dorm.

But this arrangement will end soon. From May 1 next year, non-Malaysian workers from the marine and process sectors, including the chemicals and pharmaceutical sectors, will not be allowed to live in public housing.

"My workers like their privacy in the flats and I save cost. But I have to move them out soon," said Mr Thavaseelan, general manager of Tech Offshore Marine.

Other new rules are forcing employers to move their foreign workers to purpose-built dorms.

Last week, in a circular to building owners and developers, the Urban Redevelopment Authority said it would no longer allow new temporary dorms to be built in 12 industrial estates.

These were usually converted from old factories and could be used for up to three years. But conditions tended to be cramped and dirty.

Purpose-built dorms are generally well-maintained and come with amenities, but bosses said the rents would hike their wage bills by 20 per cent, which might be passed on to consumers, said Mr Melvin Ong, director of construction company Fonda Global.

There are about 700 temporary dorms housing some 100,000 low-skilled foreign workers - a quarter of the 385,000 here who need accommodation.

Another 200,000 live in purpose-built dormitories. The rest are elsewhere, such as in public housing or temporary quarters on worksites.

Migrant worker groups have been critical of conditions in factory-converted dorms and support the new plans to house workers in proper dorms. But Migrant Workers' Centre chairman Yeo Guat Kwang said the authorities must continue to enforce standards at all types of housing, including converted dorms.

Activists warned that some bosses may cut the salaries of workers to offset higher costs and called on the authorities to take action against unscrupulous bosses.

"Hopefully, after more purpose-built dorms are up and running, competition will keep rents reasonable," said Mr Alex Au, vice-president of Transient Workers Count Too.

Nine purpose-built dorms will be built over the next two years to add about 100,000 beds.