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The fatal accident of an open lorry with foreign workers crammed on its rear deck – the most recent in a spate of similar calamities – has once again stirred a debate in Singapore. Kai Portmann
The men on the back of the lorry had no chance.
When the vehicle skidded and tipped over off Singapore’s Pan- Island Expressway in the morning rush hour of June 22, the workers were thrown from the lorry. Three Chinese nationals died, 14 of their colleagues were injured on their way to work.
The fatal accident – the most recent in a spate of similar calamities – has once again stirred a debate in Singapore, where foreign workers crammed on the rear deck of open lorries, shielded from the blazing sun or torrential rain only by plastic bags, are a common sight.
“It’s a gross anomaly that first-world Singapore is so third world in this respect,” said a comment in the mainstream Business Times newspaper, adding that “even Bahrain … has banned commuting in the back of open lorries.”
“How many foreign lives need to be lost before we do something?” asked a Singapore resident in a web forum.
“Stop companies from killing any more workers,” said another.
An estimated 200,000 foreign workers – mainly from Bangladesh and India – are being transported on lorries daily on Singapore’s streets, according to the Ministry of Transport.
Last year, 166 rear passengers had been killed or injured in open lorries or on cargo decks of pickups – down from 210 in 2008, according to police statistics, but no details were given for foreign workers involved.
The Transport Ministry said that both fatality and injury rates of workers on lorries in the past several years “were about six times lower than the average annual rates of all road accidents.”
In September 2009, however, the authorities tightened the safety rules for the transport of foreign workers, lowering, for example, the maximum allowable height of a seated worker and implementing harsher penalties for breaching the regulations.
Further measures, including the installation of higher side railings and canopies on lorries, are set to be implemented in September 2012.
But following the June 22 accident, legislatures and worker- welfare groups put some pressure on the government, saying the new rules should kick in much sooner.
“The new safety measures should be implemented earlier,” said Halimah Yacob, chairwoman of the Parliamentary Committee for Manpower.
She said that 2012 “is no longer a feasible date and the authorities should act quickly.”
Jolovan Wham, executive director of the worker’s advocacy group Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics, agreed.
“Every day that these measures are not in place means increased risk and potential loss of lives for workers,” he said, adding that the latest accident was “a strong wake-up call.”
The safety of foreign workers on Singapore streets “is a very complex issue,” senior parliamentary Secretary for Transport, Teo Ser Luck, told parliament when presenting the new rules last year.
“We have to address not only the safety concerns, but also the concerns of the business sector,” he said, noting that ferrying workers on lorries “has helped companies control business costs.”
The authorities, therefore, gave employers three years to fully comply with the stepped-up measures.
But Halimah said it was reasonable to put all new rules in place by the end of this year, because businesses had been given ample notice of the changes.
“So long as the law is not in place, the rules are not mandatory and companies will drag their feet to the detriment of the workers,” she said, adding that companies “must be prepared to pay for the safe transportation of their workers.”
Halimah also called for more stringent requirements “before foreigners are allowed to drive such lorries, as this has been identified as one of the causes of the accidents.”
Singapore’s Land Transport Authority signalled it would consider doing more, “including bringing forward the implementation of the remaining measures.”
Transport Minister Raymond Lim said that, in the long run, the government should consider phasing out the use of lorries for ferrying workers.
Halimah agreed, saying that the use of buses should be the ultimate goal, as “lorries are designed to carry goods and not people.”
The foreign workers were not just numbers, but human beings, she said.