File photo of a high pressure water jet and a town council cleaner at work

Based on an interview by Katia B in May 2019

We interviewed Hebal (not his real name) several times over a few months because he had such a mutli-layered story. The companion article titled ‘Swindle, cheat and manipulate, example no. 3’ described how he became a victim of a salary scam.

Here we will focus on his work conditions, particularly the questions of occupational safety and excessive hours.

When small employers have to bid low to win tenders, they find themselves compelled to cut costs. Singapore authorities are right to be watchful over safety shortcuts, but we’d be wise not to forget that accidents don’t only happen in the construction or manufacturing sectors where heavy machinery or working at heights are common.

Hebal was in neither of these sectors. He was classed as a conservancy worker. His employer was a cleaning contractor for a town council, and his job was to sweep and wash walkways and void decks of public housing blocks, and to collect trash. How dangerous can that be?

The accident

Hebal started on his job around 7 August 2018. A few weeks later, he was shown the high-pressure water jet machine he had to use for floor washing. There was no formal training, just some guidance by a fellow worker. The next day, Hebal was left alone with this machine to wash the many floors of a block of flats.

Things went well for the first two floors, but then it happened: the joint connecting the water hose with the hand-held metal tube loosened or broke. Water spat out at high pressure hitting him in the face. Four teeth were broken, and Hebal was bleeding heavily. A resident called the police and the police called an ambulance. He was taken to Ng Teng Fong Hospital.

Long working hours

From that point on, Hebal’s relationship with his employer spiralled down. He had issues about getting appropriate medical treatment and sufficient rest to recover. This was exacerbated by the absurding demanding work rosters.

“Every day, from 6am to 7pm,” Hebal tells us at TWC2. “Sunday also. No [day] off.”

Just to be sure we’ve understood correctly, we ask him how many hours he got for his lunch break. In some jobs, the custom is to have a “split shift” where instead of a one-hour break, it’s a longer break between two halves of a shift.

“Only one hour for lunch,” Hebal says.

This means that he was working twelve hours a day, seven days a week. That totals 84 hours a week. This is hardly unusual for town council cleaners. Nevertheless, two big issues arise. The first is: Are they paid correctly for the overtime hours and Sunday hours that they have to put in? The second is related to the maximum number of overtime hours laid down under the Employment Act: Are conservancy workers asked to work more than the legally stipulated maximum of overtime?

Hebal’s salary claim is described in the companion article, and it is clear from there that the question of whether he was correctly paid his overtime is drowned within the larger salary scam he fell prey to. It is too complicated for us to proffer an opinion whether he was correctly paid his overtime wages. What would be “correct” anyway? The promised salary stated on a fake document or the salary registered by the employer with the Ministry of Manpower without Hebal’s knowledge?

On the second point, Singapore’s Employment Act stipulates that no worker shall be asked to work more than 72 hours of overtime per month, over and above the 44 normal working hours per week. Generally speaking, this means that no worker should be working more than a total of about 60 or 61 hours a week. When town council cleaners like Hebal are made to work 84 hours a week, it would be a violation of law.

Overwork leads to fatigue, which increases the risk of inattention and accidents — the very reason why we have legislation like this.

Town councils must step up

Although technically, workers like Hebal are employed by contractors, it is not hard to trace responsibility to the town councils themselves. In these days when clean supply chains are expected, town councils must monitor their contractors to ensure that safe and decent work conditions are in place.

Town councils are headed by members of parliament. Who better to be setting an example?