Play Your Part, Help Migrant Workers

Jul 14, 2010
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In Singapore, migrant workers are transported in the back of lorries, like goods. asia! explores how concerned citizens could change that, before the next potential death.

“My life is important. My life is my life. If you take care of your worker, your worker will take care of you; your business will be good. If workers are not treated well, it affects their work. And their friends at work feel afraid and worried and this affects their work, too.” – Construction worker, Singapore.

That is what a construction worker told me recently when I asked him how he felt about being transported in the back of a lorry. And I think it is great advice coming at a time when Singapore wants to boost productivity, particularly in the construction sector.

Sitting in the back of lorries is a common mode of transport for about 200,000 male migrant workers in Singapore. In an accident in June 2010, three workers died and over 15 were injured while being transported this way. And since 2003 over 20 have died and more than 700 injured. Workers also complain of chronic backache, injuries when getting on and off the vehicles, and being exposed to the rain and scorching heat.

I agree with Madam Halimah Yacob who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower when she said: “These are not just numbers. These are human beings. It is not good for Singapore for them to come here to work and go back in coffins.” (The Straits Times, 28 June 2010.)

The latest accident sparked an outcry from concerned citizens in the media. Workers should be transported in enclosed vehicles, they said, and safety regulations should kick in sooner, and the practice banned. Others, however, said using passenger vehicles to transport workers would be too expensive.

I agree that workers should be transported in passenger vehicles. And I do hope that legislation on this will be instituted as soon as possible. But till then how do concerned people in the community create change before the next potential death?


We need a makeover from this

We need a makeover from this


to more of this.

to more of this.

What's the makeover you imagine for an issue of concern to you?


I see two possible answers: corporate social responsibility and consumer power.

Do you have some influence over a developer of construction projects in Singapore? Or are you an owner of a company that employs migrant workers? If you are, you have the power to change things soon. Leaders set the tone for what happens in their supply chain which involves contractors and sub-contractors.

And what about the rest of us who are not building or shipping magnates? Well, we deal with the smaller contractors who renovate or do construction projects at our office, club, home or place of worship. We can choose contractors who use passenger vehicles for their workers. And if it is difficult to find one now, we can keep asking these questions. In due course, an astute businessman will realise that there is a demand for an improved service for his clients. He will set a trend that could reform the industry.

Such individuals would be leaving a positive institutional and personal legacy. They would be aligning their actions with values such as empathy, kindness and integrity. These are priceless ways to attain peace of mind and live a happier life.

And improving worker welfare either through improved safety or other means could have a powerful effect on productivity. I mean, don’t you work better when you’re healthy, comfortable, and treated well by your boss? I know I do.

If the market is what rules in some of our societies, then it holds some of the answers to the social problems we grapple with. We need to create a demand for the safety and well-being for others who also have dreams, hopes and families, like us.

We can also provide positive publicity to institutions that are already doing good. (In fact if you know of companies or institutions operating in Singapore that use passenger vehicles for workers in their entire supply chain, please email me at [email protected]. I have plans to publicise such a list.)

Some solutions might be closer within our reach than we imagine. And this applies not just to this transport issue, but also many others. The appropriate legislation may then naturally emerge when public opinion and the market transform.

So let’s get busy – before it is too late for someone else’s son or husband.


PS: Which issue in your country/organisation/life could do with a re-imagination of solutions? Who comprises the “community” surrounding this issue? Which stakeholders who have been ignored could be creatively and constructively engaged? And what positive role can you personally play?


Vadivu Govind is starting an initiative to recognise companies doing good in Singapore. The first focus will be on companies who ensure that their workers are safely transported in passenger vehicles. She can be contacted at [email protected]


Photos by Heather Lim and Shirley Soh