Speaking on the second reading of the Road Traffic (amendment) Bill in Parliament on Monday, Workers’ Party (WP) MP for Sengkang GRC He Ting Ru raised several concerns regarding the provisions in the bill including the lack of provisions in the bill on migrant worker transportation safety.
Touching on the larger theme of enhancing road safety, Ms He noted that while the Road Traffic (amendment) bill contains provisions for ensuring security and safety for road users and those who use public transport networks, it does not feature the safety of migrant workers.
She harkened back to the recent road accidents involving lorries ferrying migrant workers.
The first accident involved a lorry carrying 17 workers which collided with a stationary truck along the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE), resulting in two deaths in April. The second, just a few days later, involved a lorry carrying nine workers. Fortunately, there were no fatalities in the second incident.
The lorry driver in the first incident has been arrested for careless driving causing death.
In a third incident just last week, a police van collided with a lorry ferrying 11 workers. A total of 17 people, including five police officers, suffered minor injuries.
Ms He noted in her speech that the issue of banning transport of workers in the backs of lorries “like livestock or goods” has been under scrutiny since 2009.
“Yet, Section 126 of the Road Traffic Act still has a provision banning the use of goods vehicles for passengers, unless, I quote, “(a) the person so carried is in the employment of the owner or hirer of the vehicle and is proceeding on his master’s business and is carried in accordance with rules prescribed under section 77(6); or (b) the person so carried is a sick or injured person carried in a case of emergency,” she pointed out.
“Such a practice is dangerous to not only the migrant workers themselves, but it also poses real risks to other road users.”
Increased cost argument is “flawed”
The MP said that while she is glad that the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) is looking into the matter, “the reason always given whenever such calls are made, is that to allow any safer ways of transporting migrant workers would mean increased costs.”
She continued, “Leaving aside what it says about us as a country where we can argue that “increased costs” are a good enough reason to turn a blind eye to lower safety standards for “lower tier workers”, I believe this argument is flawed.”
Calling out the argument of cost as a problematic one, Ms He used the example of when the government mandated safety measures like seat belts on all school busses after an accident killed an 8-year-old boy in 2008.
This incident led to all school busses being retrofitted with seat belts, an initiative for which S$35 million was set aside to help owners of small busses to implement.
Fundamental problem of addiction to cheap labour
Ms He went on to also argue that the issue of migrant worker safety ignores the “fundamental problem” in Singapore’s labour system, which is its addiction to cheap labour “often at the expense of productivity”.
“Despite many pointing out the danger and unsustainable nature of our approach of importing cheap labour in sectors such as the construction and marine industries, little has been done by enterprises to shift away from this model towards a more productive, less labour intensive model,” said the MP.
She went on to point out that the current review of the ITM 2.0 roadmaps makes this a good time to look into the entire way the Singapore’s construction industry is structured and find a long-lasting and sustainable solution to maximise productivity and minimise labour input.
Further, Ms He also noted in her speech that the statistics quoted by Dr Khor in Parliament on Monday (10 May) that the number of fatalities of persons on board lorries involved in road accidents has been declining is a “non-starter”.
She argued that this is because “the statistics quoted include the number of injuries for all road users, and crucially include motorcycles, which have a higher casualty rate.”
Ms He then urged the government to seriously consider mandating all migrant workers be transported in buses or mini-buses instead of the backs of lorries.
She argued, “The drop in tourism due to Covid-19 has resulted in many buses and mini-buses with spare capacity—perhaps this is a good time as any to start the transition, with some kind of government support.”
There are significant practical and operation issues, says Dr Khor
In response to Ms He’s points, Dr Khor said that while the government is deeply saddened by the recent incidents, it cannot ignore the fact that injury and fatality rates of persons on board lorries have declined in the past decades.
She also reiterated the points she made in Parliament earlier this week, noting: “There are also very significant practical and operational issues as I’ve noted on top of just cost considerations that need to be considered in any enhancement of existing measures.”
“These are not vague statements but concrete feedback given by many companies sand SMEs and reflect the realities on the ground.”
In her speech, Ms He had also called for a proper study on the costs associated with enhancing safety measures for transportation of migrant workers and a review of the labour model for the construction industry sp as to enable more meaningful conversation on the subject “rather than have vague statements being made about costs each time the topic is brought up.”
In her response, Dr Khor said: “While it is clearly not just about cost, to argue as though cost does not matter at all is not practical and does not gel with reality.”
“What we have been striving to do is to preserve the safety of workers and at the same time, ensure that they can continue to have their jobs, and for the migrant workers, this is the very reason that they are here.”
Dr Khor then said that the authorities will continue to review the existing safety rules in order to find “a sensible and balanced way forward taking into account all concerns for the benefit of all.”