S’pore struggles with fundamental problem of addiction to cheap labour: WP’s He Ting Ru

She criticised the argument that safer transportation means higher costs, calling it flawed.

Jane Zhang | May 11, 2021, 11:03 PM

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The issue of safer transportation for migrant workers has been intensely discussed in the past couple of weeks, in the wake of three accidents involving lorries that resulted in the death of two workers and the hospitalisation of dozens more.

In Parliament on Tuesday (May 11), Workers' Party Member of Parliament (MP) He Ting Ru called for Singapore to seriously consider requiring that all migrant workers are transported in buses or mini-buses, rather than lorries, and to follow higher safety standard practised by other countries.

Argument of increased costs is flawed: He Ting Ru

In her speech on the proposed amendments to the Road Traffic Act on Tuesday (May 11), He Ting Ru pointed out one area of safety that is not featured in the Bill is the safety of migrant workers.

She pointed out that the issue affects a large number of Singapore's population, given that there are approximately 300,000 of such workers who thus "face dangerous commutes on a daily basis".

He Ting Ru said that while she is glad that NTUC is looking into the matter, she noted that the rationale provided whenever calls for transporting migrant workers in a safer manner occur is increased cost.

She criticised that argument:

"Leaving aside what it says about us as a country where we can argue that 'increased costs' are a good enough reason to turn a blind eye to lower safety standards for 'lower tier workers', I believe this argument is flawed."

By doing so, it ignores the "more fundamental problem" in Singapore's labour system — the "addiction to cheap labour, often at the expense of productivity increases".

She stated, "It would naturally flow that any increased costs by more stringent transport safety standards would have less of an impact if we are not so reliant on employing a large force of cheap, low-skilled workers in our building sector."

However, little has been done to shift away from this model of importing cheap labour in industries such as construction and marine, toward a more productive and less labour-intensive model, she said.

"Is this not a good time for us to start looking into the entire way the construction industry is structured, to really find long-lasting, sustainable solutions that maximise productivity and minimise labour input?"

He Ting Ru also called the argument on cost "problematic", pointing to the overhaul of mandatory safety measures on school buses after a 2008 accident resulted in a 8-year-old boy's death.

S$35 million was put aside by the government to help owners of small buses implement the retrofitting of seat belts on all school buses.

Significant practical & operational issues in addition to cost considerations: SMS Amy Khor

On Monday (May 10), Senior Minister of State for Transport Amy Khor responded to questions by some MPs, including He Ting Ru, on the topic of transporting workers using lorries.

She said that while it would be "ideal" for lorries to not carry any passengers in their rear decks, there are "very significant practical and operational issues" in addition to cost considerations.

"We note the concerns regarding this issue and understandably so. But this is an issue with multi-faceted considerations and wider ramifications, including on workers' livelihoods," she said.

Every time topic is brought up, increased costs are cited: He Ting Ru

In a follow-up question, He Ting Ru asked Khor if there have been studies done on these costs:

"Every time we bring this topic up, we hear the counter-argument saying [that] there will be increased costs. So we need to actually understand how much costs will be increased by, before we can actually have a meaningful conversation about whether or not there need to be further safety measures put in place."

Khor said that when the study was conducted previously, in 2008, there was "strong feedback" from the industry regarding the significant business costs. She also repeated her previous point about "practical and operational" issues:

"This really is not just about costs. It goes beyond cost. Because at the ground, really there are significant, real, practical, and operational challenges, on top of just cost consideration."

In order to estimate the additional costs incurred if lorries were banned for ferrying workers, the ministry will need to know what are the other options, whether it's buses or minivans, said Khor.

Why not study countries that outlaw the use of lorries for workers: He Ting Ru

Khor said that while internationally, practices vary, countries such as Canada, Thailand, and the U.S. allow for passengers to be ferried in the rear deck of goods vehicle with some restrictions.

He Ting Ru pointed out that this is not the case for all other countries. She asked if a study could be done on other countries, to find out how they overcome this problem of additional costs.

Khor responded:

"As I've also said in my reply, international practices are varied. And indeed, you know, some of these countries that do allow, we think that it's also... our challenges are not unique, and they probably have a similar challenges.

But I agree that even as we undertake a review, we'll consult the stakeholders in industries and we will also look at various practices, as well as technologies."

Following up on her May 10 question to Khor, He Ting Ru said that referring to other countries where similar practices are allowed should not be our first reaction. Instead, Singapore should learn from the other countries where the practice is banned.

She suggested that idle or under-utilised buses and mini-buses with spare capacity — due to the drop in tourism as a result of Covid-19 — be repurposed to shuttle migrant workers, with the help of some government support.

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Top photos via CNA and ItsRainingRaincoats Facebook video.