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The Big Read in short: Solving the conundrum of transporting migrant workers on the back of lorries

SINGAPORE —  Sometime in 2021, migrant worker Miah Mohammad Afzal saw a traffic accident before his very eyes — a motorcycle crashing into a stationary lorry that was picking up a group of his colleagues.

A few other migrant workers who spoke to TODAY recently — mostly under anonymity due to fear of reprisals — lamented how their pleas to employers were met with indifference at best or on many occasions, threats of deportation.

“I cannot open (my) mouth…boss will say: ‘This one, I will send back already’,” said one worker from India who worked as a lorry driver in the construction industry for five years, before recently moving to a different industry. He added that riding on the back of lorries “is not just dangerous, it’s very, very dangerous”.

WHY IT MATTERS

The long-running debate on the issue of safer transportation for foreign workers was reignited recently.

This followed two such accidents and a parliamentary adjournment motion filed by Member of Parliament (MP) Louis Ng in July, asking for a timeline towards legislating a ban on ferrying workers at the back of lorries, and some interim measures in the meantime.

Two petitions were also raised by members of the public and non-government organisations (NGOs) in July, followed by a joint response on Aug 1 by 25 business and trade associations.

While reiterating the business fraternity’s commitment to workers’ safety, the statement cautioned against any form of immediate legislation, warning people to brace themselves for traffic jams, higher costs and “a change in social compact” if they insist on hastily changing the way workers are transported.

The statement inevitably drew flak from members of the public, with some accusing businesses of prioritising profits over human lives, trying to push the bill (and blame) on society, and dragging their feet given that the debate has been going on for so long. 

On the Government’s part, the Ministry of Transport (MOT) and government partner agencies issued a joint statement on Aug 2, reaffirming their commitment to workers’ safety while highlighting that a big push that threaten the ability of businesses to stay open may put employees’ jobs at risk, besides other “knock-on effects” on society like more expensive or delayed infrastructure projects. 

In terms of actions, the Government has introduced a few incremental measures over the years.

These include requiring the front passenger cabin to be fully occupied before the rear deck can be used to carry workers and mandating lorries transporting workers to be fitted with canopies and higher side railings.

The number of fatalities from road accidents involving persons on board lorries had dipped significantly from 2013 to 2022, while the average number of injured persons had also declined, the statement noted.

The latest round of measures to address these safety risks were implemented in January, in the form of assigned safety buddies and mandatory rest periods for lorry drivers, while the installation of speed limiters on all lorries will be rolled out at a later date.

As of June — half a year since the safety measures came into force — there were 230 injuries and one fatality arising from accidents involving lorries and pickups, according to the latest figures by the Singapore Police Force.

Disregarding the much lower injury numbers for the same half-year period during the Covid-19 pandemic (148 in 2022, 173 in 2021 and 91 in 2020), the 2023 figures are at least comparable or higher than some pre-Covid years (227 in 2019, 224 in 2018 and 205 in 2017). 

The relevant government agencies did not respond to TODAY’s queries in late July this year on possible reasons for the number of injuries showing no significant decrease after the new measures were rolled out, or whether there were enforcement actions being carried out, and what consequences, if any, would errant employers face. 

THE BIG PICTURE

The main “complexities” — costs, operational needs and infrastructural limitations — that have been highlighted by the authorities and business associations are not easy to manage, several companies told TODAY.

Financial costs

Mr Allan Low, deputy director for quality, environment health and safety at Teambuild Construction Group, said that his company had hired an external bus service to transport some of their workers during the pandemic in 2021, on top of maintaining its fleet of lorries.

He said the bus operator charged about S$3,500 per month for a single 40-seater bus to make two trips a day — between one dormitory and one work site.

If scaled up to ferry Teambuild’s entire workforce of about 1,000 people at that point in time exclusively by bus, the figure could have hypothetically added up to over S$1 million a year.

Operational related concerns

Mr Sanjeev Kumar, project director at Ironhide Demolition & Construction, said that beyond cost concerns are operational considerations.

He has a relatively small team and his workers currently sit in the front cabin of the lorries, which transport equipment and materials to multiple job sites at the same time.

Mr Kumar said that it already takes a long time for the lorry, given current traffic conditions, to reach project sites.

“Imagine if every company were to split this — one is a lorry with equipment and another one is a private bus coming in — it’s going to double the traffic congestion.”

Meanwhile, other industry players mentioned how shared buses have a stricter schedule with other trips to fulfil. This is why some companies prefer using their own lorries to have autonomy over their operational scheduling.

Bus driver shortages

The current shortage of drivers in the private bus sector makes the bus option even more problematic, businesses said.

“Even if bus is the only option should the Government mandate the move, we are not able to find (enough) bus drivers or operators taking up the tasks of transporting these workers,” said a spokesperson for a local contractor that declined to be identified.

Agreeing, Mr Kelvin Lim, co-owner of Rae Transport services, said that while bus-driving jobs are plentiful, the main problem is getting drivers.

“Every year, there’s a batch of drivers retiring, but (practically) no new drivers come into the market to replace them,” he said.

Mr Low of Teambuild said relying on external bus services permanently  — especially given the current shortage — would leave his company’s daily operations exposed to uncertainties.

THE BOTTOMLINE

Having been advocating this issue for years, MP Ng as well as NGOs reiterated that they are not seeking an immediate ban — but for a timeline to be laid out to achieve the eventual goal of not transporting workers in a dangerous manner.

In the meantime, they call for further interim measures, such as a reduction of speed limits to 50km/h from 60km/h, forming workgroups which include NGOs to look into the issue together, and a further reduction on the number of workers allowed on the back of lorries.

Responding to the call for a timeline, Senior Minister of State for Transport Amy Khor said in Parliament in July: “Setting a timeline without understanding the varied concerns of all stakeholders is also not meaningful or workable.”

When asked about this by TODAY, Mr Ng, in a discernibly exasperated tone, said: “We’re not talking about a new problem. Surely MOT, in these 14 years, have found out what these complexities are?”

Mr Ng acknowledged that steps have been taken over the years, but “more action has to be taken to address the root of the problem”.

“And it’s up to us MPs to push for it,” he said.

A sociologist from the Nanyang Technological University, Assoc Prof Laavanya Kathiravelu, said that there is “clear public will to protect migrant lives” even amid the different spectrum of views.

“Rather than wait for some indication of readiness (to bear costs) then, measures could be implemented in the larger public interest, as has been done before,” she said.

Dr Stephanie Chok, board member of Transient Workers Count Too, said that given its wealth and reputation for “administrative efficacy and urban planning prowess”, “it cannot be” that Singapore is unable to find viable alternatives to transporting workers on the back of lorries.

“We have only been hampered by a lack of political will and the reality is that migrant workers do not have the bargaining power to protest against this trade off, which has been made between lower costs (and lower safety standards) and their lives,” she said.

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