3 company directors fined $153,000, barred from hiring foreign workers after fatal 2014 Geylang fire

The aftermath of a fire that broke out in a shophouse in Lorong 4 Geylang, on Dec 6, 2014. PHOTO: SHIN MIN DAILY NEWS

SINGAPORE - Three employers have been fined a total of $153,000 for housing foreign workers in overcrowded private residential premises, resulting in the death of four workers in a 2014 shophouse fire.

Ong Lai Kar, director of Essential Clean and Care; Ong Huay Chew, director of Seng Foo Building Construction, and Koh Kok Seng, director of Bestway Cleaning Services, have also been barred from employing foreign workers.

The trio were convicted under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act last Friday (June 22).

They had housed their foreign workers in a shophouse in Lorong 4 Geylang since August 2014, said the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on Wednesday.

On Dec 6 that year, a fire broke out in the shophouse, leading to the deaths of four workers and several others being injured.

While the cause of the fire was electrical in origin, the ministry's investigations revealed that 22 foreign workers were residing in the shophouse, which exceeded the Urban Redevelopment Authority's then-prevailing occupancy cap of eight persons.

MOM then took prosecution action against the employers for housing the workers in overcrowded conditions, the ministry said.

One of the directors, Ong Lai Kar, is also facing charges of abetting the other two employers to house their foreign workers in the overcrowded shophouse.

The master tenant, property owner and other involved parties of the affected unit are also facing charges under the Planning Act and Fire Safety Act.

If convicted, they could be fined up to $200,000, jailed up to two years, or both, under the Fire Safety Act.

Ms Jeanette Har, director of well-being at MOM's foreign manpower management division, said employers who fail to ensure that their workers are housed in safe and proper accommodation will be firmly taken to task.

"Lives have been lost. Employers are legally obliged to exercise a duty of care towards their workers, and this duty cannot be simply delegated to others," she was quoted as saying in MOM's statement.

In the last two years, MOM has conducted more than 3,000 housing inspections on private residences housing foreign workers.

Foreign workers who have issues with their accommodation are urged to first raise the matter to their employer, the ministry said.

"If their employers fail to make improvements to the living conditions, they should immediately seek advice and assistance from the Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) at 6536 2692 or report the matter to MOM at 6438 5122," it added.

"Members of the public who come across foreign workers living in overcrowded and poorly maintained accommodation can similarly report the matter to MWC or MOM."

In a separate statement on Wednesday, the MWC said the employers at the time had advanced all salaries to the affected workers of the incident, and paid out hardship and bereavement tokens to the injured workers and families of the four workers that died.

The non-governmental organisation also provided its own "financial tokens" to the workers, on top of the employers' payments, "with a view of helping them tide through the difficult period following the incident", the MWC added.

The MWC said the employers also compensated the workers and provided healthcare authorities with guarantees that the workers would receive treatment and care.

"This incident and the fact that it was entirely preventable, should serve as a sad and stark reminder to all employers that theirs is more than a simple duty to comply with our manpower laws, but in fact a solemn bond to their workers, and to their families, that they will be valued, protected and properly looked after while here in Singapore.

"Some of the workers in this case were sole-breadwinners of their families and for their dependants, the distress and hardship caused by the incident is considerably pronounced," it added.

The MWC added it has stepped up vigilance against unacceptable housing for foreign workers, especially fire hazards, and will continue to do so "as long as there remain employers who see no wrong in endangering the welfare and livelihoods of their workers".

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