Workplace injuries and migrant workers

Posted by on February 1, 2014 in Articles, Facts, research, analysis

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By John Gee

The annual report for 2012 of the Occupational Safety and Health Division (link to Part 1, Part 2), released in March 2013, (“OSHD Report”) showed that the number of workplace deaths had fallen to 56, its lowest level in nine years. However, the total number of injuries had risen over ten per cent on 2011, to 11,113. See WSH Performance (from OSHD Report). There are strong indications that migrant workers form a disproportionately large proportion of those killed at work, and probably of those injured too.

The statistics do not provide a breakdown of the dead and injured by nationality, but a good case can be made that they should. That would inform public discussion of work safety strategies and measures: it surely makes a difference whether the issue has to be tackled in local languages or foreign languages, or through media that Singaporeans use most or ones with which migrant workers are most familiar. TWC2 is well aware that work safety literature and posters are already produced in the languages of most migrant workers’ countries of origins, but this is not the same as distributing such information within a framework established through a full recognition of the composition by nationality of the victims of serious accidents.

Media reports of accidents don’t make good the blank spot in the official statistics, as they often do not indicate the nationality of those killed and injured. We found media reports for 2012 that specifically identified 10 male migrant workers among those killed, seven of whom were in the construction sector. They included four Chinese (two killed in the Bugis Junction accident in July), three Bangladeshis, two Indians and one Indonesian.

The OSHD Report states that the number of fatal accidents in the construction sector last year was 26 – nearly half the total for all sectors. Of a total of 588 people with serious injuries in all sectors, 153 were in construction. In the marine sector, there were six fatalities and 31 major injuries. In construction, some 80 per cent of all employees are migrant workers, but they are almost entirely absent from the low accident risk management, supervisory and clerical sectors of the industry. The marine sector also employs a high proportion of male migrant workers in manual jobs. It seems probable that almost all of those killed in these sectors were migrant workers. 12 fatalities and 140 major injuries occurred in manufacturing, where the quota for migrant workers was reduced to 60 per cent as of July 2012. Assuming the quota to be fully used and a tendency for migrant workers to be concentrated in the more hazardous jobs, it would seem that at least eight of the 12 fatalities would be of migrant workers. At a very rough calculation, this would suggest that migrant workers made up no less than 40 out of the 56 fatalities last year.

This suggests that strategies for enhancing work safety should focus on migrant workers, though without neglecting locals. At the informational level, this certainly includes providing safety advice in workers’ languages and seeking to communicate it in the most effective forms, taking into account their different cultural norms. This much seems to have been largely taken on board by MOM and the Workplace Safety and Health Council. What also needs to be recognized is that the circumstances of migrant workers’ employment need to be tackled to promote safety.

scaffolding_no_harness_6161sWorkers who feel that they are at risk of being sent home by their employers if they don’t do as they are told may hesitate to report safety violations by employers or to refuse to carry out orders that put them at risk. This is one good reason to take away the ability of an employer to fire and send a worker home without valid cause. It is also the case that witnesses may be persuaded or coerced not to reveal what they know about an accident that resulted in death or injury for a co-worker for fear of losing their jobs. Investigations into the circumstances of a major accident rely heavily on witnesses, and unscrupulous employers are known to repatriate other workers involved, or threaten them if they speak up.

Workers who do excessive overtime may be less attentive than otherwise to safety issues; they need to be protected against pressure to perform it, but it would certainly help if their basic pay rates were such that it was less tempting. As it is, many workers welcome overtime work to make up their pay and collude with employers to work long hours. An on-site union presence, by labour unions committed to intervene actively, pre-emptively and sympathetically to counter hazardous conditions and practices, would also help.

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Other Deaths

There are certainly migrant worker deaths that are not included in the statistics contained in the OSHD Report, particularly those in the informal sector – primarily domestic workers, nine of whom died in falls from their employers’ homes in high buildings in the first half of 2012. Another domestic worker was killed when a lift fell on her in May.

When workers are killed otherwise than at the workplace, it is only to be expected that they will not be included in the OSHD Report, but it should be acknowledged that if they were not working in Singapore, they may not have been killed. Such fatalities include two Bangladeshis and one Indian killed in three different crashes of vehicles transporting workers last year, and also the death of Pitchaikannu Kannan, who fell to his death at his dormitory after an evening of drinking with friends after working for less than a month (Lim Yan Liang, Straits Times, 18 Dec 2012).

All migrant workers make personal sacrifices for the sake of their families, but some pay a heavier price than they had ever expected. Perhaps a strategy that involves dialogue with migrant workers and engaging them in finding solutions, as well as listening to the constructive points made by societies such as our own on road safety and the impact of workers’ vulnerability to undue pressures from employers could reduce this toll further.

TWC2 is an organization that is dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers when they are in difficulty. We are motivated by a sense of fairness and humanity, though our caseload often exceeds our
means.

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