By Jolovan Wham
Just days before he was sacked from his job, Hasan (not his real name) had informed his company that he refused to continue work unless measures were put in place to ensure that the worksite was safe. He was instructed to climb up a high ladder to install a fire system pipe but was not provided with a safety belt or an assistant to hold the ladder.
Hasan went to the Ministry of Manpower to file a complaint about being sacked because he had raised this issue with the employer. According to him, he was informed by the officer through a translator that he had no choice but to return to Bangladesh. At a loss of what to do, he approached Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) a NGO that looks into the rights of migrant workers, for assistance.
Despite years of campaigning and millions of dollars spent on workplace safety education, the number of fatalities and accidents remain high. The construction sector in particular, saw a disproportionate number of work place injuries and deaths. According to the Workplace Safety and Health Council’s report in 2012, 46.4 per cent of all fatalities were from the construction sector, up from 36.1 per cent in 2011, and the number of reported workplace injuries increased by 9.8 per cent to 11,113 incidents, from 10,121 in 2011.
Industry leaders have attributed worker fatigue and labour cuts to be the main causes of workplace accidents. The Sunday Times Worksite mishaps linked to fatigue? April 20 2014 quoted Kenneth Loo, Executive Director of Straits Construction citing increase in levies and reduction of quotas and man-year entitlements as the reasons for employers pressurising workers to ‘clock extra hours to meet deadlines and avoid financial penalties.’
The link between fatigue and workplace fatalities is not new. In a study we published in 2011 about migrant Chinese construction workers, we found that 10- to 16-hour work days from Mondays to Saturdays, and 8-hour work days on Sundays, were commonly reported among the workers we interviewed. Several workers also cited long hours of up to 24 hours a day or longer on split shifts.
Such conditions mean migrant construction workers have little or no time to rest. A large number of them can also be found in poor accommodation, especially those who live in construction sites. These places are often crowded, poorly ventilated and infested with bed bugs and pests, which makes it difficult for workers to have adequate and proper rest. We cited a study by Dr Margaret Chan of the University of Sydney, where she found that factors like failure to use equipment or failure by individual workers to follow safety procedures are also influenced by fatigue.
Construction work involves intense focus, heavy physical exertion and repetitive work tasks. These are factors which lead to tiredness and stress. When workers have little control over their work choices, struggle to adjust to life in Singapore and have to worry about financial pressures, it may result in various forms of depression, and anxiety. This inadvertently leads to an inability to concentrate well at work, and thus leaving them more vulnerable to work place accidents.
HOME has documented cases of workers informing us that work site safety officers try to cover up accidents, or refuse to allow them to file work injury claims. Whistle blowers and those who sound the alarm on poor safety have also been repatriated, or have had their salaries deducted, thus creating a culture of fear and obedience. Even though safety officers are appointed at work sites, they are often employees of the company and may not effectively represent the interests of workers. Without the presence of independent union officials, many workers end up toiling in silence for fear of reprisals.
Singapore’s quest and reputation for speed and efficiency has exacted a human cost. Construction companies should not have to make employees work beyond legally mandated hours because they have to meet tight deadlines. We need to realize that creating an employment culture which respects workers’ rights has to be at the heart of any workplace safety campaign. No amount of posters, safety briefings, or safety inspections will help if employers do not treat workers with dignity, if we do not clamp down on abusive practices, and if we do not repeal regulations which restrict the rights of foreign workers.
Exploitation has to be taken seriously, and the physical and psychological well-being of all workers needs to be addressed if we want long term and significant reductions in the number of work place fatalities and accidents.
(Photo taken by the worker from an actual ladder on the worksite he had to climb)