Singapore. Alam Khali can remember vividly how he feared for his safety whenever he squatted in the back of an open truck while being ferried to construction sites in Singapore.
Squashed in with other foreign laborers, the 40-year-old Bangladeshi said he clung on to whatever part of the truck he could get his hands on as the vehicle made its way around the wealthy city-state.
“Of course scared, but boss says take truck, we take,” Khali, who has been working in Singapore since 2003, said with a shrug.
Thanks to a new boss, Khali now gets a stipend to commute by subway, but most of the estimated 245,000 foreign construction workers from poorer Asian countries are not so lucky.
Transported like cattle even under pouring rain, the workers are a daily reminder to Singaporeans of how tough it is to be at the bottom of the economic ladder, but attitudes are changing.
Lee Kitt Anya, an 11-year-old schoolgirl, won a national book-writing competition last year for a story she wrote about a fictional Indian worker after being shocked by the sight of a group of laborers on a truck.
“It’s quite a horrifying sight because it was raining very heavily and they were so wet,” she recalled. “I felt quite appalled.
Lee donated part of the proceeds from her book to a welfare group called HOME that advocates for migrant workers.
The death of three Chinese workers in road accidents in June has prompted Singapore to accelerate the implementation of new safety rules, including fitting trucks with canopies and higher side railings.
“Singaporeans are generally used to seeing workers transported in this way, but even so, more and more feel that it is wrong,” said John Gee, president of Transient Workers Count 2, a local advocacy group for the workers.
“Their sympathy with the workers rises every time there is an accident, or when they find themselves in heavy traffic during a downpour and see workers crouched in the back of a truck, holding what they can over their heads to offer some protection,” he said.
Since the start of the year, all new trucks to be used for ferrying workers must be fitted with canopies and side railings before they go on the road.
Older vehicles will be fitted with safety and comfort equipment over the next 12 months.
Transport Minister Raymond Lim, who announced the measures in Parliament, ruled out immediate moves to make it compulsory for employers to use buses to ferry workers.
“We should allow the measures to improve workers’ safety on trucks to take effect and study their effectiveness before concluding that they are insufficient,” he said.
Gee said the new truck safety measures were a step forward but, “we’d like the government to indicate that, in the longer run, it would prefer that people are transported in enclosed vehicles.” He said the government should put out a timetable on reaching the goal.
Construction is again thriving in Singapore as the economy roars back from recession.
Two massive casino complexes have powered the current building boom, and economic growth forecasts of 13 to 15 percent this year are spurring new residential and office property projects requiring even more foreign labor.
An estimated 100,000 new foreign workers will be hired in Singapore this year.
“The government has asserted that migrant workers make a vital contribution to the economy,” Gee said.
“But this still leaves the workers evaluated on the basis of their usefulness to Singapore, and too little focus is given to the rights and aspirations of the workers themselves.”