Singapore Govt cautions against lorry transport ban for workers, citing potential knock-on effects

In the early hours of 20 April 2021, a 33-year-old Bangladeshi worker died in the hospital after the lorry he was travelling in collided with a stationary tipper truck on the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE). The fatal accident also saw 16 other migrant workers injured and were sent to the hospital for treatment.

SINGAPORE: Recent concerns regarding the safety of workers transported by lorries have sparked a national debate in Singapore, leading to multiple statements issued by government and civil society organizations.

Amid intensifying pressure to impose a ban, seven Singaporean government agencies stressed the potential socio-economic repercussions in a joint statement issued on Wednesday.

The Transport Ministry, Land Transport Authority, Manpower Ministry, Building and Construction Authority, Enterprise Singapore, Ministry of Home Affairs, and Singapore Police Force jointly noted that a ban could potentially force many businesses to close, resulting in job losses for both Singaporean and migrant workers.

They also warned of likely societal impacts, such as delays in housing projects, polyclinics, and MRT lines.

The agencies agreed, advocating for alternative transport arrangements and stressing the need to retain the current exception under the Road Traffic Act permitting the transportation of workers in lorries.

The authorities also highlighted the reduction in accidents involving lorries over recent years, attributing this to safety measures such as requiring the front passenger cabin to be fully occupied before using the rear deck.

Their focus, they insist, is on evidence-based strategies addressing factors behind accidents, such as driving behaviours and vehicle speed.

Public scrutiny on this issue intensified following two lorry accidents in July, which resulted in 37 individuals, including migrant workers, being injured.

The accidents ignited a renewed call to halt the practice of transporting workers in lorries, with 100 groups and individuals endorsing two petitions over the last two weeks.

Over 40 organizations and individuals, including migrant worker welfare groups, jointly addressed PM Lee, Mr Chee, and Dr Khor, condemning the government’s response as theatrics and handwringing, devoid of necessary seriousness and urgency.

In another show of dissent, a coalition of 57 local civil society organizations and community groups issued a joint statement on 26 July. They criticized the government’s approach as comprising of “feeble steps” and distractions. They underscored the inherent risks and dignity-compromising conditions of transporting people in lorries, vehicles not designed for human transport.

The 57-group coalition called for a portion of the foreign worker levy, amounting to at least S$1.1 billion dollars in 2020, to be allocated towards assisting smaller companies transitioning to safer transport alternatives.

They accused the government of disregarding the acute pain experienced by injured workers and grieving families thousands of miles away due to the current practices.

Despite this, more than 20 business groups urged the government to consider the complexities and challenges of such a move.

The statement from the business groups highlighted that potential regulatory changes, such as a ban on transporting workers via lorries, could have substantial impacts on sectors traditionally reliant on this practice. The potential for project delays and jeopardized livelihoods of workers was underscored.

Additionally, the business groups pointed out the various factors, including “geographic constraints, limited infrastructure, and economic realities that certain regions and industries face”, that have necessitated the use of lorries to transport workers.

Recognizing the divided opinions on the issue, the government agencies reiterated that while safety is paramount, a ban could exacerbate the struggles of small- and medium-sized businesses already grappling with post-pandemic cost increases and disruptions.

They pointed out structural and operational challenges such as alternative transportation availability and a shortage of bus drivers in Singapore.

“Beyond financial costs, there are also structural and operational challenges, including the availability of alternative modes of transportation,” the statement added.

For instance, buses may not be suitable for specialist trades, which often require transporting a small crew of workers with equipment or goods, or both, to several locations in a day.

“The situation is exacerbated by a shortage of bus drivers in Singapore, as we had seen with school buses.”

The statement said the Government is committed to improving safety for road users and working with parties including non-governmental organisations to develop practical solutions in the best interests of workers, to protect their safety and livelihoods.

In conclusion, the agencies reassured the public of their commitment to improving safety for all road users. They vowed to continue working with various parties, including non-governmental organizations, to protect workers’ safety and livelihoods through practical solutions.

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