Two months, before he was due to leave Singapore, Mahalingam Rajesh was looking forward to marrying his fiancee and starting afresh in his homeland.
Moving back to India, his dream was to set up a fish farm and settle down – a world away from the dusty construction sites he’d been slaving on.
Squeezed into the back of the lorry which takes him to work each morning, it must have felt good to know his new life was about to begin.
But on the morning of March 14th, Rajesh was killed after a sedan car smashed into the lorry that he was in, flinging him to the roadside like a ragdoll. All ten others in the lorry, including the driver, suffered injuries as the vehicle flipped over, and were taken to Changi General Hospital.
You could be forgiven for mixing Rajesh’s death up with any other crash involving migrant workers in Singapore. The incidences are all fairly similar.
Last year, three Chinese workers died when a lorry in which they were being carried skidded and crashed onto its side. Some among the 14 survivors needed hospital treatment. The lorry crashed off the same Pan-Island Expressway that Rajesh died on.
The facts about the safe transit of migrant workers have been painstakingly laid out by TWC2 in recent years – we have argued strongly against transporting workers on the backs of lorries and trucks in favour of enclosed vehicles.
Road safety measures are not only meant to prevent accidents, but to minimise the harm done when they do occur.
If the 17 workers injured last year had been travelling in a coach or a minibus (preferably with seatbelts), would the outcome have been the same? Likely not.
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 requirements for transporting national servicemen are far more stringent, and injuries are correspondingly rare.
Singapore should have banned the transport of people in the back of lorries or trucks. It is particularly risky when dangerous equipment are also on board. A bump in the road or sudden swerve may send sharp tools into the workers. Workers should be safely moved to and from work by buses or minivans hired or bought for the purpose and equipped with safety belts.
Yes, this will impose additional costs upon contractors, but consider the toll in lives lost, the cost of injuries and compensation incurred en route to work.
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 expenses.
A complete ban on transporting people on the back of trucks exists in countries including Britain and Bahrain. More than 30 out of the 50 states of the US issue some restriction on how people are ferried on trucks.
Mr Neo Tiam Beng, president of the Singapore School and Private Hire Bus Owners’ Association has said before that the operators who run some 4,000 private buses for hire here “have the capacity to provide transportation to foreign workers”.
So, why has it not happened?
One of TWC2’s volunteers, who had undertaken his national service, explained the great lengths the army goes to to ensure safety while travelling in trucks:
- Military vehicles have sturdy chassis.
- The backs of the military trucks are all fully covered with canvas protecting the passengers from the elements. The chassis includes a backrest.
- Army personnel must wear their helmets and these must be strapped up tightly.
- Personnel must either sit on the benches or on the floor. They are not allowed to sit on equipment. Those sitting on the benches must sit properly, while those sitting on the floorboard must sit facing the tailboard.
- A senior personnel member must sit at the back of the vehicle nearest the tailboard.
- The most senior personnel member acts as the Vehicle Commander, sitting beside the driver. He could be equally responsible for any incident along the way.
The point is this: when migrant deaths keep occuring on Singapore’s roads, why are better policies not in place to protect workers when they travel, as they clearly are in the military and overseas?
Rajesh didn’t get the chance to start his new life. But perhaps something can do done before another man’s dreams get extinguished on the road.