Have you ever had to commute to work in the back of a lorry? It’s highly unlikely, but it’s a daily occurrence for some workers in Singapore. They are transported from their accommodation to their workplaces, sitting uncomfortably in the rear of lorries, meant for cargo. Some sit on leg-cut plastic chairs, while others sit directly on the deck, still sleepy in the morning from insufficient sleep or exhausted after a long day at the construction site.

This topic of how Singapore treats migrant workers like cargo on lorries has been aired before in the media. There are Singaporeans who think this is a disgraceful way of treating those whom, during Covid-19, we called “essential workers”. But rarely do we get a chance to hear from the workers themselves. How do they feel about the daily indignity? Do they feel safe at all?

Many workers, such as Hossain, “never travelled in a lorry before coming to Singapore”. Same thing for Amin, who has only “seen lorries used to transport cattle in my country”, but here, it has been their daily means of transportation. A very unsafe and uncomfortable one. “Sometimes, there is no place to sit because we are packed with (like?) materials and tools at the back of the lorries”, explains Ibrahim, who has had no choice but to commute like this for ten years. “When the driver hits the breaks, materials can move and injure us.” Even though the regulation specifies that “materials need to be fixed”, it has yet to be fully enforced.

This lack of safety presents a significant risk of workers falling off the lorry or suffering from chronic back pain due to road bumps, to name a few.

Singapore enhanced some safety rules in 2009 and 2010 and again in 2022. For instance, the maximum passenger capacity must be displayed clearly, and front seats must be occupied before people can sit at the rear deck. You sure have seen the round, yellow, or black stickers displaying the maximum of people allowed. But does this ensure that safety is met? Not really. “Too many people at the back of the lorries make it uncomfortable and present the risk of falling out of the lorry,” says Amin.

Lorries are not built to carry passengers. They do not provide adequate safety or comfort to protect them from injuries or, even worse, rain, especially morning rain. “When it rains, water comes in the lorry,” says Hassan. “The morning rain is the worst. Sometimes, we end up working the whole day in wet clothes. Then we can catch a cold and become sick.”

He adds, “Travelling at the back of lorries exposes us to rain and dust that can make us sick. It is not good for our well-being.”

In 2022, a new regulation required light lorries to be fitted with rain covers on all non-enclosed sides of the canopy, with at least one side being transparent by July 2023.

So, what do the workers want? Of course, they would prefer to be commuting like us, in a seat, in a closed bus with aircon. But those we spoke to don’t even dare hope for that. They don’t ask for seats or even aircon. “I would like the lorries to be sheltered from the rain. And that material or goods are not transported simultaneously with workers.” After ten years of working in Singapore, Hassan expects no improvements. “I have been working in Singapore for ten years, and I have not seen any change in the transportation of workers from dormitories to workplaces.”

Even though there is slow progress, there is still a long way to go before workers travel like us in a secure, human and respectful manner.

21 Nov 2002
Gulf News

Use of trucks to haul workers banned

The Abu Dhabi Police has banned the use of modified trucks and pickups to transport workers. An Abu Dhabi police official told Gulf News yesterday that all establishments have six months to arrange regular bus services for their workers.

“The new regulation has been imposed for the safety of workers who are being transported between their camps and work places like herds of domestic animals,” said the official asking not to be named.

Read more at https://gulfnews.com/uae/use-of-trucks-to-haul-workers-banned-1.403842

6 Feb 2005
Gulf News

Use of cargo vehicles to transport people banned

Dubai was the first emirate to introduce the law several years ago, followed by Abu Dhabi in 2002.

The ministry issued the decree to ban the practice throughout the country. After the ban was implemented in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, there was a dramatic decline in the number of casualties among workers who were being driven from their housing compounds to their work sites and vice versa.

The decree also calls upon companies and government offices to arrange proper buses or passenger vans to transport their workers.

Read more at https://gulfnews.com/uae/use-of-cargo-vehicles-to-transport-people-banned-1.276346

27 Dec 2008
Arab News

Bahrain To Ban Transportation Of Workers In Open Vehicles

Bahrain will officially ban the transport of workers in open trucks beginning this week. Violators will be subject to up to six months in prison and a fine equivalent to nearly SR1,000.

The General Directorate of Traffic plans to launch a nationwide awareness campaign to inform laborers that they should contact the police if forced to travel in open vehicles. Authorities would then take action against errant employers that may include cancellation of their commercial registrations.

Read more at https://www.arabnews.com/node/319358