Sir, two workers, riding with 16 others on the back of a lorry, died in 2021 after their lorry crashed into another vehicle on the PIE. Since then, dozens more workers have been injured or killed because they, too, were riding on the back of a lorry. We have all seen these lorries full of workers cruising down our roads.
Back when she was just an eight year old, my daughter Ella pointed to such a lorry and said, “It’s not safe, right? If they crash, they will die.” She took a photo of that lorry which I shared on social media. Over 1,100 people liked that photo and many shared the same view about unsafe conditions, including Lisa Khoo who said “Exactly…despite many accidents recently. We still see workers being transported this way on a daily basis. Nothing seems to have changed despite a lot of talk about change.”
We have known for many years that transporting people on the back of lorries is not safe. Over the years, we have done so much to make transport safer for our children taking the school bus, and soldiers in Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) tonners. But, we still continue to transport our workers in unsafe conditions on the back of lorries. Why the double standards?
The worker sitting on the back of a lorry is also someone’s son, brother or father. Someone’s loved one. All I am asking today is that we give workers the same safety that we expect for anyone on our roads.
Today, we allow passengers to be transported on the back of lorries for “business purposes.” Business purposes are not good reasons for putting our workers at risk of death or injury every single day. We know an accident will happen. It is not “if” but “when”.
We can all agree that safe transportation is good for everyone. We have worked hard to ensure safe transportation for our school children, our soldiers and even our cargo. We have done well, very well in these aspects.
For our school children, we moved decisively to retrofit seat belts in all school buses when an eight-year-old died in 2008 after being flung out of his school bus in a traffic accident. No expense was spared. We set aside $35 million to help bus companies make our school buses safer. The Land Transport Authority (LTA) appointed workshops to conduct the retrofitting. To minimise business disruptions, workshops even provided replacement buses where feasible. This was a whole-of-nation effort that involved the Government, bus companies, bus drivers, bus attendants and the Singapore School Transport Association.
These efforts paid off. In July 2013, a school bus carrying nine kindergarten students crashed into a road barrier. The children on board escaped without serious injuries. Media reports attributed this to the additional safety measures for school buses.
For our soldiers, SAF equipped all SAF tonners with safety lap belts for rear passengers since 2011. Other safety features on our SAF tonners now include protective side boards, railings, canopies, rear safety straps, seating capacity limits and vehicular speed limits.
And it is not just our people; even our cargo has to be transported in a safe way. The Road Traffic (Motor Vehicles, Construction and Use) Rules requires loads carried by vehicles to be secured in a way such that danger is unlikely to be caused by the load falling from the vehicle. The rules also require any load higher than the top of the side rails to be securely tied to the vehicle. It would seem that in an accident, the goods will be more protected than the workers sitting on the back of lorries who might be flung out.
We have introduced all these safety measures to keep our school children, soldiers and cargo safe. But why do we continue to allow our workers to be transported on the back of lorries when we already know this is unsafe?
I am sure that we all agree that it is not safe to transport our workers on the back of lorries. Workers tell us it is not safe. In a media article, workers shared horror stories of friends being injured during sudden breaks or swerves. Workers talked about frequent injuries incurred en route to worksites. A worker told the media that workers often talked about their mode of transport, but felt that it was pointless because their bosses were already well aware of the risks.
Many workers fear for their safety and lives, but feel that they do not have a choice or a voice. The data backs up their fears.
Over the past decade, there have been so many fatalities and injuries of people on board these lorries. Many examples have been shared in this House so we all know this very well.
Senior Minister of State Amy Khor shared in Parliament in May 2021 that the number of persons on board lorries who were injured or killed in road accidents has been on a downward trend over the last decade. It is good news. But we must remember that “downward trend” does not mean nobody is getting killed or injured. People continue to die or get injured because fundamentally, they are transported in unsafe conditions.
For our school children, one death in 2008 was enough to catalyse an industry-wide change. We know that deaths or injuries will occur every year for our workers who are transported on the back of lorries. Why do we tolerate this?
Even the suppliers of the lorries have said that it is not safe to transport workers on the back of lorries. Minister Iswaran said in May 2022 that the lorry suppliers’ view was that it is not ideal for lorries to carry passengers in their rear decks from a road safety perspective. And the Government agrees with this view.
This is also not a new issue I am raising. Other Members of this House have spoken up repeatedly against using lorries to transport our workers. Many activists, many of whom are seated in our gallery today, have also spoken up on this, and I thank them for speaking up on this important issue. It is almost weird that we allow something which, whoever we ask, agrees it is unsafe to continue. What more do we need to stop transporting workers on the back of lorries?
The Ministry of Transport (MOT) has raised “significant practical and operational considerations” for why it is not currently feasible to install seat belts or use other forms of transport for workers.
The first reason given is that transport by buses mean higher costs for small and medium enterprises (SMEs). SMEs also require lorries which can transport both workers and goods to facilitate their business operations. I understand these valid concerns and will speak about these trade-offs later in my speech.
The second reason MOT has given is that there are insufficient buses. Minister Iswaran said that a full transition to buses to ferry all workers will require many more buses than the available fleet of private buses. Insufficient buses, however, cannot be an excuse when we know for sure that people have died and have been injured every year and will continue to die and get injured. How much more time do we need to increase our fleet of buses for a permanent solution to this problem?
We would never accept this excuse for our school children and soldiers. We cannot accept this excuse for our workers. For all the parents seated here, would you be okay for your children to be transported on the back of lorries? Would you be ok for your son to be enlisted and transported in conditions which are unsafe?
The third reason MOT has given is that retrofitting lorries with seat belts is not safe. Minister Iswaran said that Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) shared that retrofitting of seats, seat belts and reinforcements compromises the structural integrity of the lorry. He said that OEMs said that this may create new safety risks. Of course, the views of the experts manufacturing and supplying the lorries are important. We should listen to them.
But – and this is a big “but” – let us not forget that lorry suppliers have also said that it is not ideal to transport workers on the back of lorries. Why do we ignore that view? The long-term solution must be to ban the transport of workers on the back of lorries. I know that MOT has taken some steps to improve transport safety for workers. We require lorries ferrying passengers to be fitted with rain covers. We also require lorry drivers to work no more than 12 hours a day. I am sure Senior Minister of State Amy Khor will mention all these in her reply shortly.
I commend these steps but they simply do not go far enough to address the root of the problem. The fundamental issue is that it is not safe to transport workers on the back of lorries. All the steps we have taken thus far do not address this fundamental issue. We need a permanent solution.
I have three recommendations, including interim measures that we can take. My first recommendation is that we ban the transportation of workers on the back of lorries. I know I have repeated this many times in this speech. But let me clarify that I am not calling for this to be done overnight but, instead, we should set a timeline for this ban. This is not a radical step.
Under the Road Traffic Act, goods vehicles are already not allowed to be used for passengers. There are clearly safety reasons for this. It is unusual, unreasonable and unsafe that we have carved out a “business purpose” exception to the rule. Why do the safety issues disappear when the same exact vehicle is used for business purposes? We should remove this exception and implement a clear rule across the board that for safety reasons, no passengers should be transported on the back of lorries.
If we cannot do this right now, then we should set a target year for this safety goal and plot a roadmap to achieve it. Setting a target year will also give the industry certainty and help build organic industry-driven solutions to achieve the goal.
My second recommendation is that the Government pilot the use of buses to transport workers for the larger construction companies. I understand that we currently do not have enough buses to transport all workers. A pilot with larger construction companies is a realistic interim step while we scale up to a full ban on transporting workers on the back of lorries. Senior Minister of State Amy shared that there have been consultations with trade associations in the construction sector and private bus operators. To transport workers in key sectors by buses, we may need to double or triple the number of large buses.
Senior Minister of State Amy also noted that there are private sector efforts to transport workers using buses. One example is Tong Tar Transport which was asked by a multinational corporation (MNC) to ferry about 3,000 workers of their main and sub-contractors between dormitories to the construction sites via buses. Senior Minister of State Amy said that this was a large-scale endeavour that involved coordination among various bus operators, but showed that it is possible under the right circumstances. She encouraged more in the industry to follow.
This is too important for the Government to just leave to the industry to figure out. As Senior Minister of State Amy pointed out, transport by buses is not impossible but requires coordination. MOT and LTA are well-placed to coordinate this and perhaps even consider providing some funding to make things happen.
I propose that the Government work with the larger construction companies, dormitories and bus operators to coordinate and provide some funding to help in the transportation of workers using buses. This may also involve staggered working hours for workers so that buses can pick them up over multiple trips. We may not be able to fully transition to bus transport for all workers. But a pilot like this is one step in the right direction, and the funding and coordination by the Government will help the workers and companies significantly.
My third recommendation is that we have designated drivers who only perform driving duties. Again, this is an interim measure until we achieve a full ban on transporting workers on the back of lorries. Under the new requirements, lorry drivers cannot work for more than 12 hours a day. Workers who have worked six hours must have at least 30 minutes rest immediately before driving. Imagine working 12 hours a day continuously for six hours in a physically exhausting role under the hot sun and resting for 30 minutes before having to drive a heavy vehicle. Would we allow someone like that to drive a school bus?
Driving a heavy vehicle and transporting human lives is an important task. We should have specifically designated drivers who can fully focus on this task. We should start a pilot for this and, again, the Government can help provide some funding to kickstart this pilot.
Lastly, as an interim measure of this interim measure, can we at least reduce the limit of 12 hours of working before driving? That can go some way towards reducing the risk of accidents.
In conclusion, Sir, I am asking that: (a) we plot a roadmap to achieve a ban on the transport of workers on the back of lorries; (b) in the interim, we pilot the use of buses to transport workers for the larger construction companies and implement staggered working hours. The Government can help coordinate and provide some funding for this; (c) in the interim, we pilot the use of specifically designated drivers to transport the workers. And in the interim and as soon as possible, look into reducing the limit of 12 hours of working before driving for the workers currently driving the lorries.
I believe everyone in this House and in this country agrees that transporting workers on the back of lorries is not safe. All I am asking is that we treat our workers with the same care that we do for our children and soldiers. Why not? The worker on the back of the lorry is also someone’s child, someone’s loved one. Ms Teo shared in a Facebook comment on a video of workers being transported by lorries that, “Each worker is the son of a faraway family. Like kids in Singapore, he is the apple of his mother’s eye. Accord dignity to the sons who have left their families. It is not a privilege only for Singaporeans. We are better than this.”
Some have said that this is a migrant issue. Let us not forget that it is not just migrant workers but Singaporean workers, sons, daughters, husbands and wives who are also riding dangerously on the back of lorries, too. We should also remember what Prime Minister Lee said on workplace accidents. He said, “We must put this right. I call on everyone involved – employers, supervisors and workers – to take safety at the workplace seriously.”
He said, “Lives are at stake. We have the responsibility to keep all our workers safe, whether they are local or foreign.” I hope that we can heed Prime Minister Lee’s call, take this safety issue seriously and put this right by banning the transport of workers on the back of lorries. I know that the reply from MOT to this speech will be about practical, operational and cost considerations as well.
But as my fellow colleague Alex Yam put it when he spoke up about the transport of workers on the back of lorries, “We often quote trade-offs and costs as part of our decision-making matrix, but for the families in the recent accident who have lost their sons in Singapore, that cost would surmount all other costs we talked about”.
Indeed, the real trade-offs that we should be focusing on here are people’s lives and the injuries that could disable a person for life. We know that the reality is that none of us sitting here would like to be transported on the back of a lorry. We should put our hearts and minds towards solving this fundamental issue of safety and the fundamental question of whether anyone should be transported in these kinds of unsafe conditions. The lives of our workers matter, too.
Watch the speech here.