Singapore needs seat belts for expats

JUNE 30 — Last week a large DHL goods trucks collided with a smaller open top lorry that was carrying a complement of six construction workers on its flatbed.

The workers spilled out onto the road and two had to be hospitalised.

The injuries, fortunately, don't seem to be too severe but sadly from the video footage it looks like the offending DHL goods truck carried on its way with no apparent concern for the workers who lay sprawled on the road.

While the incident was not terribly severe, what's interesting is that it highlights an everyday fact of life in Singapore: construction workers travel in the back of open lorries and trucks.

It’s a common sight on our highways; you see it every day — young men taken to their shifts sitting on the floor of trucks.

We don't normally think twice about it. But maybe we should.

While you do commonly see people piled into the back of trucks in neighbouring countries and places like India, it's actually a bit of an anachronism in ultra-modern, determinedly First World Singapore. 

In many developed countries, safety laws discourage transporting people in the back of trucks.

In Singapore where seat belts etc are mandatory, even in the back seats of cars, for safety... it seems odd people in trucks can still happily travel without seats, let alone seat belts.

It’s really about the double standard. On one hand seeing lorries loaded with their human cargo bouncing away at the back has long seemed to me like a welcome glitch in the matrix — a spot of disorder in at-times overly ordered Singapore.

But actually for the workers concerned, it's not interesting at all: just hot, dusty and unsafe. Imagine sitting in a traffic jam in your work overalls with no protection from the sun. Or rain.

In principle, Singaporeans can also travel in the back of trucks but in practice, the overwhelming majority of people who travel like this are foreign construction workers.

Basically we are prepared to accept lower safety standards for foreign workers. In fact, had the DHL truck in this case hit a car or bus full of Singaporeans, I think the fallout would have been much worse.  

The reality is that Singapore has, for decades,  literally been built by foreign workers. Our skyline, our infrastructure, our landscaping all made possible by these unheralded and often marginalised men from various less privileged corners of the world.

According to Ministry of Manpower figures, there are around 300,000 foreign construction workers in Singapore today... around five per cent of the island's total population. 

But despite their enormous and vital contribution, they remain not even second class citizens as they are not citizens and not on any path to citizenship. 

In travelling to Singapore to find  better-paying jobs which allow them to remit money and save for a better life back home, they are actually as much expats as that other more privileged group of migrant workers one often finds at sailing clubs, trendy bars, organic food markets and the like. 

But they just aren't treated the same. 

Now I understand that imported labour is vital for Singapore's growth and there does have to be trade-offs to keep our economy ticking along. 

I mean it's probably too much to ask for a nice HDB flat for every worker but I think separate road safety standards are a bridge too far.

While in general I think people should have the freedom to decide if they want to be strapped into a vehicle or not — if the rest of us need seat belts to travel safely by law then construction workers need them too.  

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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