New measures to increase safety and provide shelter for workers transported in open-backed vehicles were announced in Parliament on August 18, 2009. They are to be phased in over three years.

Here is a record of the statement made in Parliament on this matter:

Mdm Halimah Yacob asked the Minister for Transport (a) whether he will give an update on the outcome of his Ministry’s review into the unsafe manner in which foreign workers are transported in the back of lorries; (b) why is there a delay in the completion of the review which was supposed to be completed by end of 2008; and (c) in the interim, what measures have been taken to mitigate the dangers posed to foreign workers travelling in this manner.

The Senior Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Transport (Mr Teo Ser Luck) (for the Minister for Transport):  Sir, since the early years of Singapore’s development, owners and hirers of goods vehicles have been allowed to use their vehicles to transport their workers. This has helped companies control business costs and be operationally flexible.

However, LTA has also been mindful of the safety of workers that are so transported and has put in place a set of rules under the Road Traffic Act to enhance their safety.  These rules require the workers to be safely seated at a height of not more than 3.2 metres from the ground and that the vehicle must not travel faster than 60 kilometres per hour.  A label must also be displayed on the lorry to indicate the maximum number of workers that can be transported, based on a minimum space requirement per person. If goods are also transported at the same time, they must be properly secured and the number of persons carried reduced accordingly.

Last year, a Workgroup co-chaired by the Land Transport Authority and the Ministry of Manpower was set up to see how we can further enhance the safety of workers being transported on lorries.  The Workgroup engaged various stakeholders in different industries and found that the issue was a complex one.  The use of lorries for the transportation of workers across different industries is pervasive and the impact of introducing any new measures will have to be thoroughly considered, including what the alternative modes of transport there are.  I am pleased to inform the House that the Workgroup has completed its review, and the Government has accepted the recommendations of the Workgroup.  Let me now touch on the key findings and recommendations of the Workgroup.

The Workgroup has assessed that the current safety measures and enforcement efforts have generally been effective in keeping the injury rates of workers transported at the back of lorries low and comparable to that of other types of vehicles such as motorcycles, buses and so on.   Specifically, the evidence from the accident figures does not suggest that a drastic change to the policy is warranted.  In the past several years, the annual average fatality and injury rates are about six times lower than the corresponding rates for all vehicles over the same period.

Nevertheless, the Workgroup has recommended several measures to further enhance the safety of workers when they are being transported on lorries.  Some can be implemented almost immediately, while others will require more time for businesses to adjust.  Some of the immediate measures include lowering the maximum height of seated workers to further reduce the risk of falling off, and increasing the penalties on drivers and owners for non-compliance with any of the safety rules.  LTA will also step up the enforcement regime with immediate effect.  The public can also help in this by calling LTA’s hotline to report any instances of non-compliance spotted on the road.

By January 2010, new lorries must be fitted with canopies and higher side railings if they are to carry passengers on the deck. Existing lorries are given three years to comply with this requirement, if they are to continue to be used to transport workers. In addition, the minimum deck space required per seated worker will be doubled to 0.744 square metres (8 square feet) in three years’ time. This will reduce the number of workers that can be transported on lorries as compared to what is stipulated today, and will lower the number of casualties if an accident does occur. The lead time will allow businesses to phase in their operational changes and also make decisions on their existing assets.

The Workgroup recognises that ensuring safety is the joint responsibility of the Government, employers, drivers, workers and other road users. Government agencies, such as LTA, MOM, Traffic Police and the various associations, will continue in their outreach programmes to educate employers and workers on their responsibilities and showcase safety best practices. Details of the recommendations and measures to be implemented will be released shortly.

Mdm Halimah Yacob (Jurong): Sir, I thank the Senior Parliamentary Secretary for the reply. I have a number of supplementary questions to ask.

My first question is that the Senior Parliamentary Secretary said that the safety and enforcement measures currently in force are effective. I would like to ask the Senior Parliamentary Secretary whether he is aware of an accident that occurred on 2nd August this year reported in the Straits Times which talks about a lorry carrying foreign workers which crashed and 16 people were hurt. That was barely two weeks ago.

Second, the Senior Parliamentary Secretary also referred to the existence of laws to prosecute those who jeopardise the life and safety of workers by carrying them on the back of lorries.  How many convictions of such employers have there been in order to ensure the safety of these workers?

Third, I would like to ask the Senior Parliamentary Secretary why does it take three years to introduce these measures?  Can it not be a much shorter period?  Because we are talking about the lives and limbs of people who come and work in our country.  I do not see many Singaporeans being carried in this way; in fact, hardly any.  If Singaporeans are carried in this way, they would probably not want to work for the company.  So, why do we need three years?  What are the interim measures the Ministry has in mind to prevent the occurrence of the accident which happened only two weeks ago?

Mr Teo Ser Luck: Sir, I would like to assure the Member that safety is paramount. That is our main consideration, and that of the Workgroup. And that is the objective of the measures that they are recommending.

It is a very complex issue. We have to address not only safety concerns but also the concerns of the business sector and other stakeholders, and find a point of balance, given how these measures might potentially impact the different stakeholders.

Nevertheless, they have come up with both immediate measures and measures for the medium term, after three years, eg, the canopies, the side railings, as well as not to expose the workers above the height that will increase the risk of them falling off. We are enhancing the enforcement measures as well. So, with all these measures coming in, we hope that we can continue to enhance the safety of the workers, and we will continue to monitor the situation.

Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I have one supplementary question. Thank you for highlighting some of the recommendations from the Workgroup to the House. I would like to check if the Workgroup has explored looking into the qualifications of drivers who drive these workers.

Many a time, the public has complained that these drivers are very reckless and they drive at very fast speeds. Are there special considerations as to what kind of training these drivers have to go through before they are allowed to drive these vehicles that transport the workers?

Mr Teo Ser Luck: There were considerations by the Workgroup regarding drivers’ behaviour,  in terms of how they drive and the safety measures that they have to adopt.

In the course of the Workgroup’s review, they found that some companies actually took their own initiative to make sure that the drivers are more aware of such safety measures, eg, one of the companies, Poh Tiong Choon Logistics, has a driver safety incentive scheme.  They reward and incentivise the drivers who practise safety measures.

I believe the Ministry of Manpower did consider the drivers’ training in licensing them and the Workgroup has also considered some of these factors. We will continue to educate employers on some of these best practices.

Mdm Cynthia Phua (Aljunied): I would like the Ministry to refine the policy’s implementation target of three years. I agree with Mdm Halimah that three years is too long. I mean, safety is paramount. Can it be refined? The canopy requirement, I agree, is a little more complex.  But putting railings on three sides of the truck is a very simple job. So why do you need three years to do that? Can the Ministry look into the measures and the timeframe?

Mr Teo Ser Luck: Well, we have to consider the different businesses, especially the medium and small enterprises because the cost factor is also a concern for them. We have to know in the medium term what they can do and what they cannot. So, the Workgroup has actually received feedback from all these different stakeholders and come up with a timeline they are comfortable with in terms of implementing these measures. But, of course, safety is of utmost importance and the Workgroup has also considered other different measures.

The decision and the recommendation that were put forward finally had taken into consideration the statistics over the years. So, in terms of implementation, we will implement the short-term measures immediately starting from 1st September; and then medium-term measures such as canopies and side-railings. All these are due to stakeholders’ feedback and they were part of the Workgroup. They have given us these inputs on what they are able and comfortable enough to implement.

We will do our best from the Ministry’s perspective to see what are the measures that we can expedite as soon as possible. And we agree that safety is paramount. Cost should be considered but should not be the main factor that will compromise safety. This is something we assure Members that we will try our very best to do.