SINGAPORE — Sometime in 2021, migrant worker Miah Mohammad Afzal saw a traffic accident before his very eyes — a motorcycle crashing into a stationary lorry that was picking up a group of his colleagues.
It happened by the roadside where he was waiting with his other colleagues to be picked up by another lorry, which arrived minutes after that accident.
“At that time I was thinking, if this accident happened two minutes later, then I’d also be on the lorry, and I also would have been injured,” he told TODAY, adding that while he felt grateful for narrowly escaping harm, he felt “very sad” for his fellow workers.
Little did he expect that a similar misfortune would befall him just months later, when a car crashed into the lorry that was ferrying him and a colleague as they sat in its rear deck.
While the other man managed to hold on to the side of the vehicle, Mr Afzal, then 28, was flung a few metres out of the lorry.
The accident, which struck Mr Afzal at the prime of his life, resulted in over 250 days of hospitalisation leave and left him with mild cognitive disability and retrograde amnesia, and a permanent injury to his hip and pelvis.
With his mother unwell and the injury claim process dragging out, Mr Afzal returned to his hometown in Bangladesh, where he now tries his best to get by with helping out at his family farm.
“I cannot do hard work like before… Right now, I feel like I’m 40 or 50 years old,” he said, adding that people around him could also notice the decline in his health and ability to do physical work.
Mr Afzal is just one among thousands of workers who have been injured, maimed or killed in accidents involving lorries the past 10 years or so, while the practice of ferrying workers on the rear decks of such vehicles has been endlessly debated on for at least over a decade with nary a progress.
The number of fatalities from road accidents involving persons on board lorries had dipped significantly from 2013 to 2022, while the average number of injured persons had also declined, the statement noted.
The latest round of measures to address these safety risks were implemented in January, in the form of assigned safety buddies and mandatory rest periods for lorry drivers, while the installation of speed limiters on all lorries will be rolled out at a later date.
Migrant worker groups who spoke to TODAY previously were measured in their support of the new initiatives. They highlighted the need for monitoring and enforcement — notwithstanding the crucial fact that the measures did not address the “inherent” safety risks of transporting workers on the back of lorries.
As of June — half a year since the safety measures came into force — there were 230 injuries and one fatality arising from accidents involving lorries and pickups, according to the latest figures by the Singapore Police Force.
Disregarding the much lower injury numbers for the same half-yearly period during the Covid-19 pandemic (148 in 2022, 173 in 2021 and 91 in 2020), the 2023 figures are at least comparable or higher than some pre-Covid years (227 in 2019, 224 in 2018 and 205 in 2017).
The publicly available data do not provide a breakdown of the occupations of the victims or on which part of the lorry they were seated in. Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said last October in response to a question by WP MP He Ting Ru (Sengkang Group Representation Constituency) that the Traffic Police does not track such breakdown in numbers.
The relevant government agencies did not respond to TODAY’s queries in late July this year on possible reasons for the number of injuries showing no significant decrease after the new measures were rolled out, or whether there were enforcement actions being carried out, and what consequences, if any, would errant employers face.
Some companies, in the meantime, are doing what they can to make commuting a safer experience for their workers.
Aespada Technologies, a logistics technology startup, launched an app in 2021 to match construction companies with bus operators, attracting around 25 companies onboard.
Its general manager Shaun Soh told TODAY that since then, some companies have reverted to using lorries for various reasons, such as an increase in bus services’ prices as demand recovered post-Covid, and the companys’ ability to re-hire lorry drivers to fully utilise their existing fleet of lorries.
However, Aespada managed to “maintain the status quo” in terms of its number of clients, with about eight in 10 of them being “big companies”.
“Most of them recognised that their workers feel safer and more energetic when using buses instead of lorries, hence they wish to maintain these benefits for their workers,” said Mr Soh.
“They also realised that it makes more business sense for them to use a bus instead of lorries, especially for main contractors who need to transport 30 workers and above. A bus is more cost-effective than a lorry which has to make two trips.”
MILLION-DOLLAR BUS RIDE
The main “complexities” — costs, operational needs and infrastructural limitations — that have been highlighted by the authorities and business associations are not easy to manage, several companies told TODAY.
Mr Allan Low, a deputy director for quality, environment health and safety at Teambuild Construction Group, said that his company had hired an external bus service to transport some of their workers during the pandemic in 2021, on top of maintaining its fleet of lorries.
He said the bus operator charged about S$3,500 per month for a single 40-seater bus to make two trips a day — between one dormitory and one work site.
If scaled up to ferry Teambuild’s entire workforce of about 1,000 people at that point in time exclusively by bus, the figure could have hypothetically added up to over S$1 million a year.
Mr Low added that other factors such as having different start and end destinations and needing to make multiple trips in a day, along with the rising prices of bus services since then, could push the actual figure higher today, describing the practice as “unsustainable”.
A director in a second generation family business in the construction industry with about 30 workers said that there was no incentive to plough in more money to charter buses or maintain its own fleet “because the customer always demands (the) cheaper option”.
The director, who declined for his or his company’s name to be published over concerns of bad publicity, said these costs will eventually trickle down to consumers.
“Until the day comes when people stop whining about housing prices, the industry will continue to provide cheap housing at tolerated risk levels (by engaging in lower cost practices),” he said.
Operational related concerns
Mr Sanjeev Kumar, a project director at Ironhide Demolition & Construction, said that beyond cost concerns are operational considerations.
He has a relatively small team and his workers currently sit in the front cabin of the lorries, which transport equipment and materials to multiple job sites at the same time.
Mr Kumar said that it already takes a long time for the lorry, given current traffic conditions, to reach project sites.
“Imagine if every company were to split this — one is a lorry with equipment and another one is a private bus coming in — it’s going to double the traffic congestion.”
Mr Kumar added that this is “not feasible at all” unless roads are widened and traffic is somehow smoothened.
Mr Tay Hing Heng, a principal consultant at demolition firm Perisseuo, had offered transport allowance for workers to make their own way to the worksite, though they would be penalised if they were late “so as to make them responsible”.
“(In the end) we gave only one guy S$100 as his transport allowance. The rest took the (lorry) transport because they didn’t want to be responsible for being late,” said Mr Tay, whose company now mainly does consultancy work.
Mr Soh of Aespada said: “Sometimes, (companies) using their own lorry means they can have a longer waiting time for their workers, compared to using buses.”
Shared buses have a stricter schedule with other trips to fulfil, he said, adding that is why some companies have reverted to using their own lorries to have autonomy over their operational scheduling.
Bus driver shortages
The current shortage of drivers in the private bus sector makes the bus option even more problematic, businesses said.
“Even if bus is the only option should the Government mandate the move, we are not able to find (enough) bus drivers or operators taking up the tasks of transporting these workers,” said a spokesperson for a local contractor that declined to be identified.
Agreeing, Mr Kelvin Lim, co-owner of Rae Transport services, said that while bus-driving jobs are plentiful, the main problem is getting drivers.
“Every year, there’s a batch of drivers retiring, but (practically) no new drivers come into the market to replace them,” he said.
Mr Zeph Ang, a director at bus company A&S Transit, described the manpower shortage as “the worst this industry has faced so far”.
Mr Low of Teambuild said that relying on external bus services permanently — especially given the current shortage — would leave his company’s daily operations exposed to uncertainties.
Industry players acknowledged that different companies have different operational requirements, which in turn impact their ability to outsource worker transportation to other parties.
Mr Aston of Alexis Construction, for example, said that he may have to reevaluate alternative transporting arrangements when his company scales up in the future, such as purchasing its own lorry for goods and chartering buses.
“Say if you have 500 workers. Maybe chartering (a bus) might be cheaper than if you own or rent a vehicle and hire a driver, right?” he said.
Meanwhile some companies, such as maintenance ones, need to make multiple trips throughout the day across different sites — which may cost them more when chartering a vehicle compared to another company that only handles one project site at a time.