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Fatal accident sparks fresh calls to ban ferrying of construction workers on lorries, install seat belts

SINGAPORE — For construction worker Md Sharif Uddin, 42, his daily work commute in the back of a lorry is always a terrifying experience.

A file photo of migrant workers being transported in the back of a lorry in 2010.

A file photo of migrant workers being transported in the back of a lorry in 2010.

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  • A migrant worker died and 16 others were injured in an accident involving a lorry and a tipper truck on April 20
  • People are calling for the authorities to ban the practice of transporting workers in the back of lorries
  • Others want to see more safety features such as seat belts
  • Some insiders in the construction industry said these suggestions will need to be reviewed holistically


SINGAPORE — For construction worker Md Sharif Uddin, 42, his daily work commute in the back of a lorry is always a terrifying experience.

“I am always emotionally uncomfortable (in the lorry). I am terrified. Because there have already been many accidents,” the Bangladeshi safety coordinator at a construction company told TODAY on Wednesday (April 21).

Describing how migrant workers like him have come to accept that this is how they get to work, Mr Uddin said that these lorry rides could mean hours of braving the sun and rain, sitting in a mandated 8-sqf minimum space for each worker in a lorry deck that also holds site equipment, construction materials and other men.

That daily experience led him to pen three chapters devoted to lorry rides in his recently released book Stranger to My World, which is a diary of his experiences in Singapore as a migrant worker, published by Landmark Books.

In one of them, he wrote: “Low-income migrant workers like us just have to accept that we must be transported in unsafe lorries in this modern city.”

The issue of ferrying construction workers in lorries is in the spotlight again following an accident along the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE) involving a lorry and a tipper truck on Tuesday morning that killed one migrant worker and injured 16 others.

The lorry driver has been arrested for careless driving. Police investigations are ongoing.

The incident has sparked several calls on social media for the authorities to forbid employers from ferrying workers at the back of lorries.

Former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Calvin Cheng wrote on Facebook on Tuesday that workers should be transported by minibuses with seat belts.

Ms Kuik Shiao-Yin, another former NMP, suggested the same: “We would never put up with a lorry transporting our children, our students, our own workers this way. This was an accident waiting to happen.”

Under the Road Traffic Act, lorries and other goods vehicles cannot be used for private passenger transport, though the Act grants an exception for owners and lorry hirers to ferry their workers between their lodgings and worksites. This is subject to requirements such as capacity and maximum height limits.

Others have suggested increased passenger safety standards, such as mandatory seat belts for lorry passengers. Seat belts are not a requirement now for workers riding in the cargo deck of goods vehicles.

Ms Dipa Swaminathan, who founded migrant worker advocacy group ItsRainingRaincoats, told TODAY: “Seat belts save lives and there is enough evidence to show it… It’s unfair that migrant workers do not get that safety feature.

“This incident can be a watershed moment for Singapore to finally regulate seat belts for lorry passengers.”

TODAY has sought comment from the Land Transport Authority and the Singapore Contractors Association.


Mr Kenneth Loo, executive director and chief operating officer for Straits Construction, said that such suggestions have been mooted in the past whenever there is a serious road accident involving migrant workers in cargo lorries.

While cost is often thought of as a reason why safety measures such as seat belts are not adopted, Mr Loo said the truth is that construction firms are able to factor them in so long as they are given enough time to adjust.

There should not be a snap decision to impose regulations because of one tragedy, he said.

“Any fatal incident is one too many, but we should also look holistically at the road traffic statistics to see if existing measures have worked,” Mr Loo said.

He noted that the density limits for workers in lorries have been reduced and there have been other improvements to safety over the years.

On June 22 in 2010, three workers were killed and six were hurt when the lorry they were in overturned on the PIE. The workers were flung off the vehicle, which had carried 15 workers when it was only permitted to carry 13.

The incident led to calls from Members of Parliament (MPs) to impose measures to ensure the safety of foreign workers. One MP, Mr Christopher de Souza from Holland-Bukit Timah Group Representation Constituency, asked the Ministry of Transport to consider legislating a requirement for employers to transport workers in buses with seat belts.

Then-Transport Minister Raymond Lim said that the Government would speed up the implementation of incoming safety measures, such as fitting canopies and higher side rails to existing lorries.

The suggestion to use buses to transport workers, however, was not taken up because Mr Lim said that the effectiveness of these improved measures should be studied “before concluding that they are insufficient and going for a ban”.

Mr Johnny Lim Chee Hwa, a construction industry veteran who is now a consultant to several firms, explained that given the varying work hours for different groups of workers, it made sense that they were transported via lorries as opposed to buses that pick up workers only at scheduled times.

“A large portion of workers typically stay off-site in multiple dormitories, so you need multiple buses travelling different routes to transport workers to the site every day. You will need thousands of buses for thousands of contractors and worksites in Singapore — is this optimal?”

Lorries can also be used at the worksite to transport materials and equipment, whereas minibuses cannot be used for that purpose, he added.

However, Mr Johnnhy Lim agreed that the suggestion to install passenger seat belts in the cargo decks of lorries was worth considering as it could improve safety.

Both he and Mr Loo of Straits Construction said that any review will also need to look into the competency of the drivers. The present speed limit for lorries on expressways is 60km/h.

Ms Dipa of ItsRainingRaincoats, who is also a lawyer, said that she was concerned about whether there was adequate rest for lorry drivers, especially if they are migrant workers who live in dormitories. That would mean that they have to start their days early when lorries begin ferrying workers from various locations, she said.

“For these guys, a momentary lapse of concentration can make the difference between life and death.” 

  • Correction: A previous version of the article stated that Mr Md Sharif Uddin's book, Stranger to My World, was published by Epigram Books. It was in fact published by Landmark Books. We are sorry for the error.

Related topics

foreign worker goods vehicle transport accident death safety

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