Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Second Reading of the Workplace Safety and Health (Amendment) Bill [Bill No. 38/2017]
Sir, the WSH 2018 workplan for advancing safety and health articulates a vision of Singapore as a centre of excellence for workplace health and safety. To achieve this bold ambition, our legislative and regulatory framework must identify and address the key causes of workplace accidents.
The WSH 2018 Plus workplan had highlighted improving WSH performance in the construction industry as a key priority. At the outset, it is necessary to recognise the reality that low-wage migrant workers form the bulk of the workforce in the construction industry, and other sectors such as marine and manufacturing that are the top contributors of workplace fatalities and injuries.
Workplace safety and health laws can only be truly effective if they take into account the working realities of this group of workers.
I have one clarification on the Bill and would like to further raise some points for consideration in the implementation of the WSH legislation and regulations.
Scope of offences with enhanced fines
Firstly, the Bill increases the maximum fine for offences that may cause death, serious bodily injury, or dangerous occurrence to $50,000. Can the Minister clarify whether the enhanced fines apply to offences that lead to or increase the risk of occupational diseases?
While occupational diseases may take a longer time to manifest, may be harder to detect, and may be harder to link causally to the workplace, their effects on the health of workers can be just as detrimental.
Part IV of the current Act on the duties of persons and Part VI on investigation powers do not distinguish between accidents and occupational diseases.
If the enhanced fines do not apply to breaches of regulations that may or actually leads to occupational diseases, can the Minister clarify why the distinction was drawn?
Secondly, under section 41(1)(a), safety inspectors have the power to inspect workplaces at any time. I understand that workers have reported instances of employers with advance knowledge that an inspection was going to take place.
Can Minister confirm that it is indeed the case that inspections are conducted without prior notice? Or is it the case that there are announced inspections and unannounced inspections? If so, what percentage of inspections is unannounced?
Provision of safety equipment
Thirdly, it is the duty of the employer under section 12(1) of Act to take practicable measures to ensure the safety and health of his employees at work.
While the employer is not permitted under section 18(1) to deduct any sums for anything done or provided by him as part of such measures, civil society organisations have heard accounts from workers who were injured because they were not provided with, could not afford to buy, or could not afford to replace damaged safety equipment. Further, many workers report having to pay for safety equipment through salary deductions.
Can the Minister confirm that the provision of safety equipment and training is a part of measures necessary to ensure the health and safety of employees under section 12(1), and that employers cannot recover such costs from workers?
Also can the Minister clarify if it within the scope of safety inspections to ensure that employers are not deducting costs for safety equipment from workers? It is a relevant contributing factor to workers not having the necessary equipment for their health and safety.
Issuing safety instructions in language of workers
Fourth, section 16 of the act requires manufacturers and suppliers of machinery, equipment or hazardous substance to provide information about precaution, hazards, and safe use. Such information may be provided in a language that is not understood by foreign workers who form the bulk of the workforce most vulnerable to workplace hazards.
Can the Minister confirm if it is the responsibility of employers and principals to ensure that workers understand the written safety advice and instruction provided by manufacturers and suppliers?
Reviewing number of hours worked in safety inspections
Fifth, the WSH Guidelines note that fatigue can lead to physical and mental impairment, which increases error rates and risk of injuries. Such fatigue can accumulate as a result of workers being required to perform overtime work day after day.
Civil society organisations report encountering workers who work beyond the maximum allowable overtime hours, with little or no days off. Tight schedules, budget, and man-year entitlement limitations might lead to workers being asked to work longer hours.
I understand that MOM’s inspections on companies’ compliance with the Employment Act found that most have complied with working hour provisions, and that WSH inspectors examine plans to manage workers’ fatigue.
However, will WSH inspectors also include as part of their inspections the actual number of hours clocked by workers as plans may not always be complied with in the face of punishing completion deadlines and limited manpower.
Protecting workers who report safety violations
Furthermore, despite MOM’s extensive efforts in safety inspections, many workplace violations may still go unnoticed if not reported by workers. However, if reporting safety violations means that workers are likely to lose their jobs, workers are not going to be willing to come forward regardless of MOM’s best attempts at encouraging reporting of safety violations.
Section 18(2) prevents an employer from dismissing an employee who assists authorities where there have been breaches of health and safety. Employees are required to report such instances through the Employment Act appeal mechanisms for unfair dismissal.
However, there may be insufficient protection for low-wage migrant workers who can have their work permits cancelled and repatriated, with no opportunity to challenge their termination.
Is MOM able to share the number of employees that have successfully appealed an unfair dismissal under section 18(2)? Will the Minister consider additional safeguards such as requiring notification to MOM where workers are dismissed within two years of providing such assistance to authorities?
Providing employees with stronger whistleblower protection will encourage reporting of WSHA violations from the stakeholders who have the best knowledge of such violations.
Consulting civil society organisations
Lastly, in the course of providing direct service to injured migrant workers, civil society organisations often hear firsthand accounts of safety-related issues on worksites that lead to workplace injuries.
While MOM’s inspections may find that vast majority of employers are compliant with safety and health requirements, there may be a group of recalcitrant employers with weak safety mindsets that is tarnishing workplace safety culture as a whole.
The first hand accounts that civil society organisations have are valuable because they provide an insight into the practices of this group of employers, which will help MOM in focusing its efforts and resources in addressing the worst violations.
I hope that MOM will increase its collaborations with civil society organisations.
At the end of the day, of all the legislative change, regulatory amendments and work plans, the goal should be to improve the outcomes for the workers on the ground. Hearing first hand accounts from the workers are the best way of gauging the effectiveness of our efforts.
Sir, I stand in support of the Bill and I hope the Minister can consider the recommendations and clarifications that I have raised in the implementation of WSHA.
I am encouraged by the bold plan MOM has articulated to improve workplace health and safety, and look forward to the steps that will be taken to achieve our objective of becoming that centre of excellence that WSH 2018 Plus envisions.