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Firms reliant on foreign labour concerned with 'painful' penalties for workplace accidents, but agree safety is priority

SINGAPORE — Some of the manpower ministry's new workplace safety measures, especially a ban on errant firms hiring foreign workers for up to three months, will be onerous, construction and manufacturing firms said. However, they acknowledged that they have to step up their act given that lives are at stake.

Firms reliant on foreign labour concerned with 'painful' penalties for workplace accidents, but agree safety is priority
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  • Following a recent spate of workplace deaths, the Ministry of Manpower is imposing a period of "heightened safety" until Feb 28, 2023.
  • This includes mandatory safety timeouts and stiffer penalities for safety breaches 
  • Construction and manufacturing firms told TODAY that they feel some of the new measures, especially the ban on hiring foreign workers, will be onerous 
  • But they acknowledge that with lives at stake, such measures are necessary 

SINGAPORE — Some of the manpower ministry's new workplace safety measures, especially a ban on errant firms hiring foreign workers for up to three months, will be onerous, construction and manufacturing firms said. However, they acknowledged that they have to step up their act given that lives are at stake.

Mr Kurt Wee, the president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (Asme), said that complying with these measures, unveiled by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) last week and applying until Feb 28, 2023, “will to some extent impact the way companies run their operations”. 

“But these measures are useful in bringing back a level of active awareness (of safety matters) in the workforce,” Mr Wee said. 

Agreeing, Mr Lennon Tan, the council president of the Singapore Manufacturing Federation (SMF), said that "safety and productivity go hand in hand", citing a study that showed that "employee safety and health are a key element in achieving an organisation's desired productivity and efficiency".

“With that, the SMF strongly encourages our members to heed the call of the ministry, allocate sufficient time to conduct the mandatory safety time-out and correct any safety lapses.”

As part of the “heightened safety” period, companies will be required to conduct a mandatory safety time-out by allocating time to review their safety procedures and complete activities required by MOM. This applies until Sept 15.

RELIANCE ON FOREIGN WORKERS 

MOM said last Thursday (Sept 1) that companies may be barred from hiring new foreign employees for up to three months if found to have serious workplace safety and health breaches after a serious or fatal workplace accident during the heightened safety period. 

Additionally, construction companies will be given more demerit points for workplace safety and health breaches under MOM’s demerit point system — which will be in place even beyond the heightened safety period. 

Companies with consistently poor workplace safety and health performance that reach the penalty threshold may be banned from hiring foreign employees for up to two years, MOM added.

This has posed a serious concern to companies, since many rely heavily on foreign workers. 

Mr Rajan Krishnan, director of construction company KTC Group, said: “We are concerned if any accidents happen as these enhanced penalties... can be very painful to construction companies.” 

Out of the close to 2,000 workers the firm employs on site, around 85 per cent of them are foreign employees. 

Similarly, Straits Construction's executive director Kenneth Loo said: “It’s definitely a concern. It will have a big impact on construction firms since we depend largely on foreign workers.”

He added that "close to 100 per cent" of its employees on site are foreign workers. 

Mr Ken Lin, the managing director of manufacturing company Kawarin Enterprise, said that this is a “big concern" especially for firms such as his where foreign workers make up around 40 per cent of the 60 workers they employ to work in their factory.

However, Mr Krishnan, Mr Loo and Mr Lin also acknowledged that the measures are necessary to put across a stronger message that safety is important and should not be taken lightly. 

“At the end of the day, safety is still definitely a concern. One life lost is definitely one too many,” Mr Loo said. 

At the end of the day, safety is still definitely a concern. One life lost is definitely one too many.
Straits Construction's executive director Kenneth Loo

Mr Krishnan added that the enhanced penalty has pushed them to do more in-depth risk studies before the start of every new project, but he does not think that it will affect the company’s productivity since these will be done before the start of the projects, and will not require halting any ongoing ones. 

Mr Lin also called for greater understanding for firms: “It’s okay to have this sort of regulation or penalty but it also depends on what the employer or manager has done.

"If the manager has already extensively implemented all these measures and it still happens once in many years, then this sort of thing should be judged and assessed.” 

SAFETY TIME-OUTS 

Companies told TODAY that they do not foresee the safety time-outs during the period until Sept 15 to have a large impact on their business operations, because many have already been doing similar checks frequently.

Most said that the time-out will take them anywhere between one and three hours. 

Regarding the new checklists that companies are required to follow, Mr Daryl Chia, the corporate director for manufacturing company Certact Engineering, said that he does not believe the new checklist is more demanding.

Mr Chia added that the checks “will be confined to the production area, which is not very big, around 11,000 sqf and with 20 employees". 

He said that it will probably take them an hour to conduct the safety time-out. 

Similarly, Mr Krishnan said that the mandatory time-out will not affect business operations since they have already been doing one every month, which involves site inspections by senior management and going through recent incidents with workers to teach them how to prevent similar accidents.

After implementing these regular time-outs three years ago, Mr Krishnan said that the severity of accidents has gone down, from severe cuts to minor ones such as cuts on the fingers, and it “has become easier to ensure safe working measures and to identify safety risks”. 

OTHER SUPPORT AND MEASURES

Beyond penalties and other deterrent measures, companies also called for greater support. 

Mr Lin suggested having a grant for companies so that they may buy safety equipment such as helmets and goggles. He added that this could serve as a “good encouragement” for firms to step up their safety measures. 

Mr Wee said that there should be a restriction on the using phones when workers are at work, because it could be one of the factors causing more workplace accidents. This was based on feedback he received from contractors this year. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY NAVENE ELANGOVAN AND JANARTHANAN KRISHNASAMY 

Related topics

MOM workplace safety workplace accidents Migrant Workers construction employers safety time-out

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