Local start-up launches mini bus service to make ferrying foreign workers safer

Aespada Technologies hopes to curb the practice of migrant workers being ferried in the back of lorries. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE - A local start-up has come up with a service that includes an app, Aespada SL, that makes transporting migrant workers safely in mini buses more convenient and affordable.

By providing a pool of these vehicles that can be booked on demand, Aespada Technologies chief executive Jean Christophe Li hopes to curb the decades-long practice of ferrying migrant workers on the back of lorries.

This year alone, there have been at least four accidents involving workers travelling on the back of lorries, leaving two dead and over 30 injured.

While concerns about the safety of transporting workers in this manner was highlighted in Parliament in May, Senior Minister of State for Transport Amy Khor said cost and practical constraints have stymied the tightening of rules on worker transport in the past 10 years.

Mr Li told The Straits Times that Aespada SL's mini bus booking feature, which was launched last Friday (Oct 22), may address employers' cost considerations since they would not have to maintain their own fleet of vehicles but can book transport from Aespada's partner instead.

The firm also has a heavy vehicle booking service.

He noted that smaller contractors often struggle to book buses as operators usually preferred long-term rental commitments. Chartered buses follow a specific route, hence often cannot meet the demands of the contractors, he said, adding that 45-seater buses are also not ideal for smaller contractors.

Through Aespada's platform, companies can book ad hoc or scheduled trips to ferry their workers at a manageable cost, said Mr Li.

He estimated that it costs a construction company $378 per worker each month to ferry 13 workers to and from a worksite 30km away. With Aespada's service, it would cost $267 per worker, he said. The comparison includes costs such as insurance and road tax that a construction company incurs.

Aespada, with its partner, has 11 mini buses ranging from seven- to 13-seaters, and is looking to expand the fleet to over 200 mini buses.

Wireless network contractor Efficient Networks has signed up for the service.

Senior operations manager Richard Su told ST that when the Covid-19 pandemic began, workers had to be seated further apart on lorries to comply with safe management measures.

Carrying both materials and workers on the back of lorries was unsafe and did not allow for sufficient safe distancing.

But finding a cost-effective solution was particularly difficult as its workers are deployed around the island.

While splitting the transportation of workers and materials is slightly costlier, the company is glad that the workers can arrive safely and their movements can be tracked using Aespada's app.

National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general Melvin Yong, who has been championing transport safety for workers, welcomed the platform's effort to make it easier to transport workers using mini buses.

Smaller companies face challenges in negotiating for cost-effective chartered bus contracts as they have a small crew and the workers are deployed across Singapore, said Mr Yong.

"Outsourcing the role of the driver will also mitigate the risk of driver fatigue," he added.

However, Mr Yong noted that current worker cohorting requirements may make it challenging to achieve economies of scale. Under such rules, which have been put in place to curb the spread of Covid-19, workers from different zones within the work site are not allowed to be transported in the same vehicle.

He urged the authorities to review cohorting restrictions so that innovative solutions on safe worker transportation can be developed and tested.

Mr Alex Au, vice-president of migrant rights group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), said services like Aespada's could help solve the issue of workers being ferried to a worksite too early, thus depriving them of sufficient rest.

He cited cases of workers being taken to a site at 5am even though work starts only at 8am because the lorries have to make several trips to transport goods or other workers.

Dr Stephanie Chok, a TWC2 executive committee member, urged the Government to lead the way in improving worker transportation standards.

"As public sector projects make up a significant percentage of construction demand, we hope these projects will ensure construction companies along their supply chain (from main to subcontractors) transport workers safely," she said.

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