Singapore has set itself the target of significantly reducing its workplace accident rate. The fatality rate alone last year was 1.9 in every 100,000 workers. Last month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the target of reducing that to fewer than one in every 100,000 workers within 10 years.
Accidents can happen in any workplace, but those employed in offices or banks, for example, are much less likely to suffer serious accidents than those who work at construction sites or in shipyards.
Migrant workers form the great majority of those employed in workplaces where hazards are more common and serious accident rates are higher than elsewhere. Most of them have little command of English, which increases their vulnerability to hazards, since they may not fully grasp on-site safety requirements.
Singapore Institution of Safety Officers president Bernard Soh highlighted the danger to The Sunday Times in October last year: “They will listen to what the supervisor wants them to do. I am concerned the supervisor may ask them to do something that is risky, and they may not realise it.”
This being the case, it would make sense for workplace accident reduction efforts to develop policies and practices that target accident prevention in this sector of Singapore’s workforce and their places of employment. That requires considering factors peculiar to migrant workers.
The most obvious would be that most of them do not speak or read English well. Safety information is available and notices in places such as construction sites are generally displayed in the languages of the workers. However, the good that this does may be negated by other factors that are inadequately recognised.
Fatigue is one such factor. Tired workers tend to pay less attention to their environment, which can be hazardous, particularly in construction or where machinery is in use. Such workers may feel that putting on appropriate safety gear or observing the correct safety protocols is too bothersome and that it might slow them down in getting on with their job, and so put themselves and possibly others at risk.
Many migrant workers perform overtime work on a daily basis. Fatigue is cumulative and has an impact on workers who work within the legal overtime limits, but more so on those who exceed them. A survey of 577 male workers conducted by Transient Workers Count Too in November last year found that nearly one in five worked at least 12.5 hours a day, and that proportion climbed to nearly one in four (23.1 per cent) in the construction sector.
If such overtime rates continue, the legal maximum monthly overtime of 72 hours permitted under the Employment Act would be clearly exceeded.
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) prosecutes around 150 employers each year for breaching overtime limits, and yet the violations continue. Part of the problem is that many employers and workers may have incentives to overlook breaking the law.
Employers may want a job done quickly. In the construction sector in particular, they have made time commitments as part of their effort to obtain a contract, and dread a failure to achieve their target. Workers generally welcome overtime work as a means of increasing their earnings, and normally do not object when legal limits are exceeded.
This is particularly the case for new workers, who would generally be in debt to the tune of at least one year’s salary, paid out to intermediaries in training costs and fees to obtain a job. For them, debt repayment takes priority over all else, and they are also the workers likely to be least experienced and least habituated to sound safety practices.
The MOM invites those who spot safety violations to report them, whether they are citizens or migrant workers. This ought to promote safe working conditions and often does.
However, migrant workers often feel that it is risky to make such reports. They fear that their employer might identify, fire and deport them from Singapore, and here again, it is the newer workers who feel most vulnerable.
A small indication of the sense of powerlessness that inhibits workers from speaking up is how they react when unscrupulous employers illegally seek to charge them for the cost of the safety wear that they have a legal obligation to provide; it seems that few, if any, risk their employment by objecting or complaining to the authorities.
Such problems can be remedied with a two-track approach – one using legislation and regulations, and the other involving the longer-term job of changing attitudes and established habits.
Migrant workers would be more confident about reporting safety violations if they can be sure that they are protected against victimisation.
The Workplace Safety and Health Act prohibits dismissal or threats of dismissal against employees who report safety violations, but the power that an employer has at present to fire and repatriate a worker without giving a reason undermines this protection. The employer may fire the worker and have a ready excuse, unrelated to safety, if challenged. What recourse would the worker have then?
If the power of an employer to dismiss a worker without giving a reason was removed and if workers who might consider complaining were given the assurance that they could leave their employer and have a fair chance of obtaining a job with another employer, it would extend protection for potential whistle-blowers.
Tight restrictions on the recruitment of workers from outside Singapore while there are migrant workers already present and seeking work would be a complementary measure.
In the construction sector, unannounced inspections and monitoring of record keeping can be tools in reducing employers’ incentives to overextend working hours and thus to combat workers’ fatigue, but the problem can also be taken on in the tendering process.
Those bidding for projects need to factor in price and quality components, and the latter should include a safety element. With government bodies giving a lead, the weight given to the safety factor could be increased and a message sent out that proposals promising delivery times achievable only at risk to life and limb will not be considered.
Given that debt due to high recruitment costs deters workers from speaking up, a drive, in cooperation with countries of origin, to bring down those costs and to further encourage longer-term retention of workers once they are given work permits would tend to build a migrant worker labour force that feels more secure and less obliged to work excessive hours, even as it becomes more productive through experience and enhanced teamwork.
All in all, it is time to acknowledge that migrant workers are disproportionately numbered among the casualties of workplace accidents and to frame the responses that take that into account and empower them better to stand up for their own safety.
•The writer is a former president of Transient Workers Count Too and now heads its research committee.