By Andrew Loh
As the smog engulfed Singapore and breaks another record high in the Pollutants Standard Index (PSI), the streets were virtually deserted of pedestrians. The PSI had hit 400 at 11am and stayed at that level for the next 2 hours or so.
Some members of the public have called on the government to issue a Stop-Work Order (SWO) for outdoor workers, such as those in the construction or in the marine industry. The government, however, has not seen it fit to issue such a directive.
When the PSI breached 321 on Wednesday, 19 June, The Online Citizen’s Choo Zheng Xi visited a construction site that same night. He spoke with several foreign workers there who told him that they were supposed to work through the night.
As the PSI reached another high – 355 – on Thursday, activist Jolovan Wham visited workers soldiering on at another work site, this time in Punggol.
In both instances, the workers did not seem to have adequate protection to shield themselves from the worsening atmospheric conditions.
On Friday morning, the PSI reading surpassed all previous highs to register 400 on the scale.
It was also at that time that I paid a visit to another construction site, this time along Havelock Road. The site, which is located directly opposite the Ministry of Manpower building, is boarded up and there is no sign to indicate what the new building is. Nonetheless, as I walked along the pedestrian foot path which ran alongside the work site, I could hear workers busy at work. The air was foul, confirming the PSI 400 air quality.
I decided to pop into the work site for a look and spoke to someone whom I suppose was the foreman or the supervisor of the site. I asked if the men he had with him were working today. “Oh no no,” he said. “They no longer work under such conditions,” he told me. “They no longer work?” I asked. “Yes, they no longer work. But if they do work, we only let them work on the ground and not high up,” he explained. I was puzzled by what he meant, since there really is no difference in working on the ground and working higher up in such PSI-400 conditions. I asked who came up with such a rule. “Oh, it’s the company rule,” he said. “It’s not a MOM rule?” I asked. “No no, not MOM. It’s our own rule,” he said.
“So they are not going to come back to work after lunch?” I asked him, after he told me the men were breaking for lunch. “Well, it depends on the air quality,” he said, adding that the men were not allowed to work when the PSI hit 400 earlier that morning.
I thanked him for speaking to me and left.
After walking around the area for a bit, I saw some of the workers I had seen earlier from that work site, they were taking their lunch seated at a small patch of grass just behind People’s Park Complex, in front of the Subordinate Courts.
“You guys eating lunch?” I asked as I sat down with them, feeling uncomfortable with myself for wearing a mask on while the 5 of them didn’t. “Yes, eating,” they replied.
“Sitting here very bad ah,” I said, as I pointed to the sky to indicate the bad air quality.
“It is ok,” one of them replied. “Everyday also like that.”
3 of them have been working in Singapore for several years while the other two have been here for several months.
I notice that the food they were having was typical “foreign worker food” – a small plastic of vegetables in watery curry and white rice.
“How is the food?” I asked.
All of them, almost in unison, replied with complaints about it. They tell me that the food was cooked at 2am by the caterer and delivered to them at 12 noon or thereabouts. By that time, however, the food sometimes have turned bad, especially the curry.
“Sometimes, cannot eat,” one of the men says. “Yesterday, curry bad. Throw away, eat only rice.”
It is hard to imagine that eating white rice alone can sustain them for the hard labour that they are involved in.
“Do you have to pay for the food?” I asked.
“Yes, S$130 a month,” they tell me.
“How much your salary?” I enquired.
I am told some of them earn S$18 a day, while others get S$25 a day – with working hours from 8am to 9pm. That’s 13 hours.
I took out a calculator and worked out some sums.
“S$18 a day, that’s about S$468,” I said.
They smiled and nodded their heads.
“How to survive?” I asked.
The men say that besides the food – which they have to buy for themselves and which cost them S$130 a month – there are also other expenses such as toiletries, medical costs, and phone charges for calling home.
They also say they are told that they have to pay their employer S$1,600 if they wanted to renew their contracts for one more year, so as to work in Singapore. So now, their employer deducts S$150 from their salaries every month as well for this.
In the end, what they are left with is not much and they could not send much money home to their families. Out of the 5 of them, 3 of them are married and have 2 or 3 children each.
“Wife complains to me how come I send only 10,000 rupees,” one of them says to me. That’s about S$215.00. “She says I must send 40,000 rupees.” He looks to me and I could see the sadness in his eyes. “I tell her, I work in Singapore very hard, you don’t know. Only I know because I work in Singapore.”
“It’s not very good working here in Singapore,” I said to him, unsure if that I should be asking the question.
“Some bosses good, some bosses not so good,” he replied.
I returned the conversation to the haze and how they were protected – or not.
“Are you given masks to wear while working,” I asked them.
“Yes!” they all replied rather readily.
“What kind of mask?”
They did their best to describe it to me. Eventually I realised it was the ordinary type of mask which they were given, certainly not the N95 mask which is necessary to protect against such high levels of particulates in the air.
Recalling the earlier foreman’s remarks that the workers were not allowed to work earlier that morning, I asked the men about this.
“All day work, everyday,” they say.
“Everyday? No stop?”
“No stop. Everyday.”
“Even this morning? The air very bad, you still work?”
“Yes, everyday work. Cannot stop.”
They told me that even on ordinary days, they work without masks, although their kind of work – sandblasting – mean they would be breathing in fumes and particles.
“We work 5 years, then die already,” one of them says. He is referring to their deteriorating health conditions which they seemed resigned to.
“Inside all bad already,” another says, rubbing his stomach and chest to indicate what ‘inside’ means.
“But this air bad for your lungs and heart,” I tried to reason.
“Yes, but no choice.”
As a breeze blew, I could smell the acrid air again, even with my mask on. I wondered how these men could go on not only sitting there in the open, eating their food on the ground, but to also engage in such manual labour, all the while engulfed by the smog, when they return to work later.
“If you fall sick, do you see a doctor?” I asked them.
“But see doctor must need money,” I say. “Does your boss pay for it?”
“No. We pay.”
“But if you sick, see doctor, employer must pay. This is MOM rule,” I tell them.
“But you cannot sick,” one of the men replies. “Sick, no work. No work, no money.”
“But if you sick, don’t go work, boss say you don’t come to work 2 days,” another one of the men explains.
I wasn’t sure what he meant and asked him to clarify. I then understood that if the men went to see the doctor, their employer would add a further two days “off” to their MC. This is not out of the goodness of his heart to let the men have enough rest but to deter the men from reporting sick – if they do not work, they do not get paid. So, instead of just one day of being sick and going without pay, the men will go without pay for 3 days – one MC day and two days added on by their employer.
So, the men, who are already paid such small sums, will be deterred from seeing any doctors even when they are sick.
One of them says he is in such a predicament even as he has a growth near this crotch. He is afraid to see the doctor for two reasons: that he won’t have the money to, and that if he did his employer would punish him for being absent from work. Two of the men showed me the scars from injuries they incurred at the work place too.
They also told me about their living conditions where they have to share with 50 men. I told them I will go visit them at their dormitory. “Also many mosquitoes,” they say. “Hard to sleep.” They explain that since they end work at 9pm, by the time they get to their dormitory, it would be close to 10pm. And with only 2 bathrooms in working conditions, they have to wait for hours before they get to shower.
Some of them end up sleeping way past midnight.
Adequate rest is a problem, they say.
As I took my leave of them, I promised again to visit them at their living quarters. I also said that I would try and find the more adequate face masks for them if I can and pass to them so they use them during work.
I spoke to the men for about an hour. They have to work under such conditions for half a day – 13 hours – and go back to a crowded dormitory, after having inadequate meals during the day.
I wish the government would have more of a heart and do more to protect these workers who are totally at the mercy of their employers.
I wish that when conditions outdoors reach hazardous levels – by the government’s own measure – that we would be humane enough to order all heavy outdoor work to stop.
All we need to do to know how these men feel working under such conditions is to step outside for a few minutes and take a few deep breaths.