An accident in which one Indian worker was killed recently drew public attention once again to the problem of the transportation of foreign workers in the back of trucks and lorries.

24-year old Solai Raj from Tamil Nadu died after a car hit the lorry in which he was being carried, causing it to spin round and then overturn, spilling out all 13 workers who had been in the back (2 others were in the front cabin). The accident occurred on the Pan-Island Expressway during the morning rush hour on Thursday, August 23, 2007, when the men were being carried to the construction site where they were due to work that day. Seven of the men were warded, some with serious head injuries. The remaining seven were discharged by 9 p.m. the same day.

Reporting the tragedy, Carolyn Quek of the Straits Times noted:

This is not the first time workers sitting in the back of lorries have been hurt: Since 2001, 25 foreign workers have been killed or injured in similar accidents.

After two workers died within a week of each other this way in May last year, a call went out for more to be done to make this mode of transport safer.

The Land Transport Authority set a limit in 2003 on the number of workers allowed in the backs of pickups and lorries, by requiring each one to have at least 0.372 sq m of space.

TWC2 has commented to the media on this issue before, and on one occasion, Executive Committee member Braema Mathi personally witnessed workers perched on an overloaded lorry while driving and reported it to the police.

We have heard numerous comments from members of the public about the conditions in which foreign workers often travel to and from work. It is not only a matter of safety; many people feel sorry for men who are exposed to the elements with little protection against either hot sun or pouring rain. It is a common sight, when it rains during a rush hour, to see workers in the back of a truck trying to keep dry under tarpaulin or plastic sheets – obviously in vain.

When it comes to safety, existing arrangements are clearly inadequate.

Vehicles carrying workers are required to observe a 60 kilometres an hour speed limit, but even an impact at half or a third of that speed could result in serious injury or death for passengers who are not secured by seatbelts and whose backs generally rest against hard metal edges.

The space requirement determines how many workers can legally be carried. The number is generally indicated in an oval sign to the right side of a truck’s tail flap. This makes it relatively easy to see when the number is exceeded. Nevertheless, as members may have noted, some trucks that are legally in compliance with the number indicated on them appear to be crowded. In addition, the space allowance makes little difference to the level of safety in a truck when workers can be thrown about or ejected in a crash or by a sudden stop.

Under rules laid down by the Land Transport Authority (LTA), passengers are supposed to be seated in such a way that they should not easily fall off vehicles and they should not be seated more than 3.2 metres off the ground. Nevertheless, all too often, workers can be seen perched on top of loads being carried by vehicles, such as bamboo poles used for scaffolding.

Efforts have been made to enforce these rules by the imposition of fines and penalties, but the problem is that the rules as they stand do not adequately ensure the safety of men being carried and attempts to make a flawed system work are bound to fall short of their intended goals: transporting people in the open backs of lorries and trucks, without proper seating or seat belts and exposed to the elements, is inherently a risk to their health and safety – whether they be foreign workers or National Servicemen.

The Executive Committee believes that Singapore should ban the transport of people in the back of lorries or trucks. Instead, workers should be conveyed to and from work by buses or minivans hired orbought for the purpose and equipped with safety belts. We realize that this will impose additional costs upon contractors, but consider that the toll in lost lives and injuries under existing arrangements could be significantly reduced by this means and that this consideration should come uppermost. It should be recognised that the long term savings by companies on costs caused by accidents, including those due to the death or injury of workers, will defray these expenses somewhat. It will also close an issue that has disturbed many people, particularly when an accident has occurred.

We propose that the way to proceed on this issue would be for the government, through the LTA, to declare that this measure is to be introduced and to set a target date for full compliance with it that will give contractors adequate time to make the arrangements necessary.

Update: TWC2 wrote to the Land Transport Authority expressing its views on February 22, 2008.