Two Chinese workers were killed and eight other migrant workers injured when scaffolding at the Bugis station worksite collapsed, deluging the two workers below with wet cement.

The construction industry is one of the most hazardous industries for workers in countries worldwide. Singapore is not exceptional in this respect. The rate of fatalities in this sector is higher than in any other industrial sector in the country. In 2010, 55 workplace deaths were reported across all sectors in Singapore and out of those, 32 were in the construction sector.

Transient Workers Count Too is aware of the efforts that have been made over the years to publicise safety requirements, to penalise firms that have been negligent of their employees’ safety and to recognise those with good safety records, but further steps are clearly needed.

We believe that the following measures could reduce the accident rate:

1. All tenders for building contracts should be required to have a strong labour standards component that should include strict conditions on safety equipment for all workers and stringent conditions on working hours to reinforce the requirements of the Employment Act. This latter requirement is necessary, as, according to reports that workers have given to TWC2, it is far from unusual for construction companies to encourage workers to perform excessive overtime work in order to keep a project on schedule. This results in workers becoming less attentive to personal safety and more inclined to work without using the appropriate safety equipment.

2. Step up safety checks, which should be conducted unannounced.

3. In most developed countries, trade unions play an important role in promoting worker safety. Besides advising workers on health and safety issues, they have their own investigators and also have networks of union representatives covering worksites; on larger sites, this includes a designated safety representative. They play an active, on-site role in monitoring safety precautions, intervening to stop work in worksite places where safety precautions are not in place and also counselling workers on the spot when they find that they are not complying with safety conditions. Such active trade union involvement in the issue is needed here: there is no substitute for the on-site monitoring it can offer.

4. Ensure greater security of employment for workers in the construction industry. Our research indicates that the major Singaporean contractors tend to have higher standards of safety than other firms operating in the sector, but the standards of large non-Singaporean firms and Singaporean sub-contractors tend to be lower. However, the large Singapore contractors make use of sub-contractor firms and hence have a certain amount of responsibility for how they behave.

The prevailing norm in much of the industry is to put a priority on holding down labour costs. This results in a high turnover rate among workers, so workers with one or two years of experience are constantly being replaced with new workers. Many of these workers pay $8,000 to $9,000 for their placement, some of which, they believe, goes into the pockets of their employers. Thus, they have an incentive to keep on taking on new workers instead of building a stable workforce of experienced workers, which would not only be more professionally capable and efficient, but also thoroughly accustomed to observing proper safety standards.

Another problem is that workers know that they can easily be dismissed and sent home if they refuse to undertake work that they think could harm their health or safety. They need better protection against dismissal for defending their rights and safety, which requires increased protective efforts from the authorities, tighter conditions on companies taking on replacement workers and also active trade union involvement in their protection.

TWC2 notes that policy on issuing In Principle Approvals for workers to come to Singapore has been tightened, but believes that a further policy tightening is necessary. We welcome the extension of the maximum stay period for workers in the sector. We hope that, in the forthcoming amendment of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, stringent measures to counter the taking of payments to employ or retain workers will be introduced and enforced rigorously, and we have made recommendations to this effect. In our research among Bangladeshi workers at the end of 2011, we found that two out of every three men interviewed were asked to pay to renew their contracts, and the great majority had paid very high placement costs.

With these measures and policies in place, TWC2 believes that the rate of deaths and injuries in the construction sector could be significantly reduced.