There have been 19 workplace deaths in the first three months of this year, the Workplace Safety and Health Council (WSHC) revealed in a report in April.
Out of these 19, fatalities at construction sites account for 12 of them.
That is one death per week, a shocking statistic.
Last year, there were a total of 59 workplace deaths – and 33 of them had occurred at construction sites.
That works out to seven fatalities per 100,000 workers, a rise from the 5.9 in 2012.
This is a far cry from the rate which Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave in May last year.
In his speech to launch the year’s workplace safety and health campaign, Mr Lee said, “Our workplace fatality rate has halved – it was 4.0 per 100,000 employees back in 2005; today it has gone down to 2.1 per 100,000 employees.”
Mr Lee cited several causes for the fatalities, such as workers speaking different languages and “they have different work practices in their home countries; that increases the risk of an accident.”
He also pointed to another potential factor – the many small and medium enterprises in the industry which, he said, “often lack the management capabilities or the resources to implement good workplace safety and health practices.”
“And also, they have a high turnover of staff, which makes it harder to build a strong safety culture,” he said.
However, later the same year, the authorities reported that the situation had gotten worse.
The TODAY newspaper reported that “the situation deteriorated around the second half of last year (2013), with 22 workplace deaths reported.”
“This was twice as many fatalities compared to the first half of the year, and five more compared to the same period in 2012,” Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Manpower Hawazi Daipi told Parliament in February this year.
He added, “This worrying trend continued into 2014, with eight out of every nine workplace fatalities in January coming from the construction industry alone.”
Employers and companies are now pointing at the government’s tightening of the foreign labour force, which provides the bulk of workers for construction companies, along with pressure to complete projects on schedule, as the causes for the rising number of fatalities.
The Straits Times reported on Sunday, 20 April 2014, “Construction industry players are blaming a sharp rise in worksite deaths on the shortage of workers coupled with pressure to complete projects on time.”
The companies also say that “with workers being made to put in longer hours… fatigue can set in and accidents happen.”
During the Committee of Inquiry (COI) hearing into the Little India riot, where a reported 400 Indian workers went on a rampage, it was disclosed by a Ministry of Manpower (MOM) official that there were 200,000 dormitory beds for foreign workers in purpose-built dormitories.
However, the number of Work Permit holders number almost 800,000.
That leaves more than half a million foreign workers living in shophouses, factory spaces, HDB flats, on-site, or some in poor makeshift accommodation, many badly run-down with inadequate facilities.
In 2012, during their strike against their employer, Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT), the 170 mainland Chinese bus drivers complained about overcrowding in their dormitories resulting in a lack of rest as one of their grievances.
Non-governmental organisations have also highlighted the problem of a lack of proper accommodation for the majority of Singapore’s migrant workers, which then results in workers being inadequately rested.
There are currently believed to be between 40 to 50 proper dormitories catering to the 800,000 Work Permit holders, clearly an undesirable and woefully inadequate situation.
This and other causes for the rising number of workplace fatalities are thus becoming a major concern.
In January, when 8 workers were killed, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin said, “This is not tenable. It is an employer’s basic responsibility to ensure that every worker returns home safely at the end of a hard day’s work.”
He also acknowledged that companies may be under pressure to complete projects on time, but he said “this may have led to the adoption of unsafe work procedures in order to speed things up.”
“I want to make it clear that, tight timelines or otherwise, there is no excuse for cutting corners or sacrificing workers’ safety or their lives,” he said.
The MOM had also issued several stop work orders in January, and is looking to impose new conditions on “construction companies to ensure safety lapses are resolved before a stop-work order can be lifted.” (TODAY)
However, these measures by the MOM could be nothing more than stop-gap and do not really get to the root of the problem – inadequate facilities for the workers to have proper rest, and the inadequate enforcement of labour laws such as limits on working hours, and also the lack of protection of workers’ rights in Singapore.
“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,” wrote Jolovan Wham, the Acting Executive Director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME). [See here.] “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.”
But perhaps not everyone takes that view.
“When we look at the migrant workers’ issue, we are not looking at it from the perspective of human rights,” Yeo Guat Kwang was reported to have said. Yeo is the chairman of the government-affiliated migrant workers aid group, Migrant Workers Centre.
He reportedly told the China Labour Bulletin, “At the end of the day, whatever factors would be able to help us to sustain the growth of the economy for the benefit of our countrymen, for the benefit of our country; we will definitely go for it.”
Perhaps it is time to discard such myopic thinking, in light of the rising number of deaths of our foreign workers.