Half-Baked Measures Leave Workers Vulnerable to Health Risks

By Jolovan Wham

At 2pm yesterday, the PSI index peaked at 355. Even though it is considered hazardous to remain outdoors, many construction workers could still be seen operating machinery and doing heavy manual work. At the Downtown line next to Waterloo Street, several workers were wearing face masks, while others were not. I met 36 year old Wu Xiaojun, a migrant Chinese construction worker at 8pm last night to find out if his employer and the other sub-contractors who are involved in a massive HDB project in Punggol are doing anything to protect the workers’ health.

Wu told me that the workers at the site have not received any safety briefings about the haze, neither he nor any of his colleagues has been kept informed of the PSI readings throughout the week. He starts work at 8am and finishes at 7pm. Wu did not seem to be bothered by the implications of the high PSI readings even after I told him that it had reached ‘hazardous’ levels by 2pm yesterday. ‘We let our employers determine if it is safe for us to work. Of course we are concerned about our health, but we take the cue from our supervisors. They are the ones to decide,’ he said. According to Wu, there are at least one thousand construction workers involved in the HDB project at Punggol.

I spoke to three other construction workers from China. One was working on another HDB project in the Yishun area, and the other at a construction site in Geylang. They were not aware of the latest PSI readings, and had not received any safety briefings about the haze. They were not issued with face masks, nor were they told to stop work this afternoon. Two Bangladeshi workers at worksites near Orchard Road told me the same thing. One migrant Chinese construction worker, who is involved in public road works at Marina South told me that he and his colleagues were ordered to stop work at 2pm yesterday. However, he was not expecting to be paid for the hours where he didn’t work. ‘No work, no pay, this is the company’s policy,’ he said. This is despite the fact that work permit terms and conditions stipulate that employees should still be paid when there is no work through no fault of their own.

21 June 2013, 12pm: Workers at the Down Town Line, Bencoolen station construction site. This is despite the fact that the PSI has hit 401, which is well within the hazardous range.

For PSI readings of the range 201 to 400, MOM’s guidelines are that employers should ‘provide suitable respirators to all employees carrying out outdoor work, and ‘outdoor work which involves strenuous physical activity should be avoided.’ However, because guidelines lack the force of law, an advisory issued by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has limited impact on an employer’s behaviour.

International standards have been established which provide guidance on how governments should respond to the adverse impact of air pollution on worker well-being. The International Labour Organisation’s Convention 148 – Working Environment (Air Pollution, Noise and Vibration) Convention, 1977 states ‘national laws or regulations shall prescribe that measures be taken for the prevention and control of, and protection against, occupational hazards in the working environment due to air pollution, noise and vibration (Article 1) and ‘appropriate penalties shall be meted out to give effect to the provisions of the Convention’ (Article 16). Singapore did not ratify this Convention.

The Workplace Safety and Health Act allows the government to issue remedial or stop work orders to deal with situations which threaten the well-being of workers. So far, the government has shown its reluctant to enforce the law to ensure compliance even though the risks posed to the well-being of workers are significant. This reluctance would not be so evident if unions were independent and membership among workers was high, as they would be able to negotiate with employers to implement measures to mitigate the effects of the haze. This is especially so when low wage workers are often the most vulnerable to arbitrary dismissals and reprisals when they assert their rights. However, when only 11 percent of our 1.2 million foreign workers are unionized, there is little that individual workers can do when faced with an employer who refuses to take action to protect their well-being.

At a press conference yesterday, the Prime Minister said that there was no ‘hard line’ to determine whether a stop work order should be issued even as the PSI index was way above the all-time high of 226 set in September 1997. The announcements at the press conference reveal little that is new about how it is tackling the problem domestically, apart from its usual tactic of issuing guidelines urging compliance.  Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan Jin said in a facebook post at 3pm yesterday that the government’s areas of concern ‘remain focused on those working outdoors, especially if under strenuous conditions and/or being outdoors on a prolonged basis’ and that what matters is the ‘substance of the next steps.’ How this focus translates into effective and substantial action remains to be seen.  In contrast, the Singapore Armed Forces stopped all outfield training when the PSI index exceeded 300 three days ago. The Civil Defence Force and Ministry of Home Affairs did the same when it exceeded 100. This glaring inconsistency shows very clearly whose lives matter more.

There is no doubt the government must be thinking of the economic costs of a stop work order where building schedules will be delayed, and losses will be suffered by business owners. But isn’t this an acceptable trade off when we know that it may avoid injuries or even deaths as a result of the haze? Our politicians should not act like the economy will grind to a halt when construction work is delayed.  Nobody is asking for all work to cease, but only those which involve outdoor exposure and physical exertion.

The health and well-being of those whose contributions make us one of the richest countries in the world are at risk, but that doesn’t really matter because foreign workers don’t have to cast a vote to determine the future of the PAP or this country. Isn’t it the case that if they are not happy with the conditions, they should just go home? After all, for every worker who is repatriated or deported, there are a thousand more waiting in line for the opportunity to work here, haze or no haze.

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Categories: Health

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