SINGAPORE - The conditions that migrant workers live under are once more the subject of debate - following two recent lorry accidents that left two dead and more than 20 injured.
Ahead of the next Parliament session on May 10, Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC MP Alex Yam has filed questions for the Ministry of Transport, asking if it will consider requiring employers to transport their workers in minibuses or buses with the compulsory use of seat belts.
Advocacy groups are more unequivocal, saying the accidents have created a "sickening sense of deja vu". For them, ferrying workers in lorries that are meant for goods, not passengers, is no longer acceptable for a developed country like Singapore, no matter the cost to employers.
A Change.org petition to the Land Transport Authority (LTA) seeking to make it mandatory to transport workers in buses or vans has drawn over 15,000 signatures.
Dr Stephanie Chok, an advocate for migrant worker safety from Transient Workers Count Too, said: "It's really frustrating because calls to ban this have been going on for a long time. There is no morally defensible reason to continue this practice.
"It is outlawed in other countries - such as Bahrain - to transport workers on the backs of lorries, why isn't it the case in Singapore?"
The issue has been debated since at least 2010. Mr Yam said he raised the matter in 2012. Others who have made suggestions over the years include President Halimah Yacob, Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Christopher de Souza and former MP Lam Pin Min.
Through their efforts, rules that mandate higher side railings and canopies on light lorries ferrying workers were put in place. But as the recent fatalities make clear, these have not solved the problem.
Last year, three people died and 244 were injured in similar accidents, according to Traffic Police statistics that do not differentiate between lorries, tipper trucks and trailers. In 2019, three died and 449 were injured. In 2017, five died. In 2015, eight died.
Migrant workers themselves have expressed frustration.
Mr MD Sharif Uddin, whose diary entries were published in a book, Stranger To My World, wrote: "I myself am mentally prepared that I too could be the victim of this kind of accident at any time."
Another migrant worker, Mr Saif Tamal, called lorries a "death trap" and "zoo-like".
In response, the Singapore Manufacturing Federation, which counts among its ranks more than 5,000 corporate members, told The Straits Times last week that "the personal safety and well-being of workers should be at the front and centre of every employer's attention", although it added that "there are commercial concerns in terms of increased cost".
The Singapore Contractors Association declined to comment.
The lukewarm response from the industry is unsurprising. After all, the sector, which accounted for 4 per cent of Singapore's economy in 2019, contracted by 28.5 per cent year on year in the fourth quarter of last year. Builders told ST that switching from lorries to buses to ferry workers is simply not a realistic option right now, and would increase the cost per worker by as much as 80 per cent.
Having invested in lorries to carry goods and equipment, it costs almost nothing to transport workers using these vehicles, but using bus companies would set them back between $80 and $200 or even more per trip.
Firms also said it was not viable to own buses. Mr Hooi Yu Koh, chief executive of Kori, a multinational Singapore-based construction company, said there would be many empty seats in a chartered bus if only 10 to 15 workers have to be transported, adding: "Pooling workers with other companies for a single bus is too difficult in terms of logistics. Location, timing, etc, it's not so convenient. It's also not allowed now with Covid-19."
Others have suggested installing safety belts on lorries, but these have yet to be trialled. Even without this requirement, lorry rules are already regularly flouted.
LTA inspections last week found 13 offences, from failure to comply with seating space requirements to not providing adequate shelter for passengers. It declined to provide ST with more long-term figures.
Having their workers take public transport would also create some backlash from the public, firms said, and would take away their control in getting workers to and from work sites on time.
The bottom line is that in a competitive industry like construction, subcontractors are vying to have the most cost-efficient operations to win tenders, and are unlikely to add to their financial burden unilaterally. Any change will need to be legislated and enforced fairly to make sure the playing field is level.
In the interim, some like Sembcorp have focused more attention on the drivers instead, reminding them to drive safely. One contractor insisted they were "the most critical factor in safe transport".
To that, Singapore University of Social Sciences associate professor of economics Walter Theseira said drivers play an important role but this does not "negate the importance of (vehicle) design".
"If a passenger is seated on a bus, the likelihood of serious injury or death will be lower because the vehicle is enclosed and the seats are permanently fixed to the vehicle structure," he said. "Passenger vehicles like buses undergo safety testing by manufacturers to examine how forces act on passengers in the event of a crash. I don't think such safety testing or engineering is done with respect to passenger carriage in goods vehicles, as this is not an intended purpose."
Any rise in cost if more stringent measures are mandated will have to be shared among stakeholders, said Mr Arjun Nair, a safety officer with experience in construction.
"Lorries expose workers to noise, dust, and are not ergonomic for passengers. We need to factor higher construction costs into tenders for projects, so that it is not borne just by one firm," he said.
"We have to take the lead to be more humane."
How rules on ferrying workers by lorry has changed
Stricter rules to protect workers ferried in lorries were unveiled after almost 18 months of review. The Land Transport Authority (LTA) and Ministry of Manpower's plan would be rolled out in three phases over 2009 to 2012. Disallowing the transport of workers on the back of lorries was ruled out as there was "no strong justification" to merit its impact on businesses. It also noted that unlike trucks used by the Singapore Armed Forces, installing safety belts was not feasible or cost effective for commercial vehicles.
First phase of new safety standards kick in. This includes raising penalties for first-time offenders who overload lorries, and lowering the maximum allowable height of a seated worker from 3.2m measured from the road surface to 1.1m measured from the carriage deck.
Since Jan 1, newly registered lorries that carry workers on the carriage deck have to be fitted with higher side railings and canopies.
On June 22, three workers died after they were thrown off an overloaded lorry on the Pan-Island Expressway. Fourteen workers were also hurt. The next day, a 24ft lorry carrying 40 workers crashed into a tree in Jurong Road, injuring six.
Madam Halimah Yacob and Mr Christopher de Souza were among five Members of Parliament who called for stricter safety standards. Then Minister for Transport Raymond Lim said LTA will strengthen public education on road safety and bring forward the deadline for compulsory installation of canopies and higher side railings. Accident statistics during the 10-month period before and after 2009 measures showed that injury cases were reduced by about 17 per cent, added Mr Lim.
Since Feb 1, all light lorries used to transport workers have to retrofit canopies and higher side railings, ahead of the initial deadline of September 1, 2012. LTA also imposed higher fines and demerit points on lorry owners and drivers who flout safety regulations.
A rule to double the minimum seating space for workers at the back of lorries to 8 sq ft from Aug 1, 2011 is delayed, and later shelved, after industry stakeholders voiced operational concerns.
Since Aug 1, all heavy lorries have to comply with the same safety rules as light lorries.