In this Explainer, find out...
Why is workplace safety for migrant construction workers (MCWs) a cause for concern?
What policies and regulations have been pursued to improve workplace safety for MCWs?
Have these policies and regulations been effective?
Migrant workers play an indispensable role in shaping Singapore's economic landscape, contributing significantly to its sustained development. Singapore relies heavily on the influx of migrant labour to bridge crucial gaps across diverse sectors. This dependence is particularly evident in sectors such as construction, healthcare, education, and technology, where the dynamic and rapidly evolving economy demands a flexible and diverse workforce.
The construction industry is a prime example of this reliance, as its demand for labour surpasses the capacity of the native workforce,¹ and foreign labour is typically cheaper than that of local sources.² Thus, migrant construction workers (MCWs) form an essential part of the workforce, undertaking arduous tasks to realise the many infrastructure projects that define our nation’s cityscape. However, as the cranes soar and the skylines evolve, a critical question looms: Has enough been done to protect the safety of these MCWs?
While their contributions are pivotal in propelling Singapore's progress, concerns have been raised about the working conditions of MCWs. The very nature of the construction industry exposes them to challenging environments.³ Be it having to, MCWs are constantly exposed to high-risk environments. This Policy Explainer shall explore existing policies and frameworks and their efficacy in ensuring workplace safety for MCWs.
What does Workplace Safety Refer to?
Workplace safety, in this context, refers to the measures and practices aimed at ensuring the well-being, health, and protection of MCWs. Given the inherently hazardous nature of construction work,⁴ which involves activities such as working at heights, using heavy machinery, and handling potentially dangerous materials, ensuring safety is paramount.
Some safety standards that MCWs have to adhere to include:
Donning of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): MCWs are often required to wear specific protective gear, such as hard hats, safety glasses, gloves, steel-toed boots, and high-visibility clothing. PPE is essential for minimising the risk of injuries from falling objects, hazardous substances, and other potential workplace hazards.⁵
Undergoing Training and Education: MCWs should undertake training programs to familiarise themselves with safety protocols, emergency procedures, and the correct use of equipment.⁶ Ongoing education ensures that workers stay informed about the latest safety practices and regulations.
Adhering to Proper Work-Rest Cycles: MCWs should have adequate time allocated to rest to prevent exhaustion which may lead to impaired judgement or delayed reactions compromising their safety.⁷
Concerns Regarding the Safety of MCWs
Over 9,000 workplace safety breaches were recorded in the first six months of 2022, double the amount recorded in the first six months of 2021.⁸ There has also been a worrying increase in workplace deaths, from 17 deaths in the first six months of 2019 to 28 deaths in the same period in 2022 (see Figure 1).⁹
Despite a robust set of safety policies and regulations, workplace safety may still be lacking due to several factors. These include:¹¹
Overwhelming work demands and overly demanding productivity targets.
Implementing cost-cutting measures that result in significant time pressures and the depletion of materials and resources, leading to potential hazards such as unstable scaffolding or platforms with wide gaps.
Exhaustion from long working hours and a lack of rest days.
These factors may be attributed to a general disregard for workers’ safety and well-being by bosses and supervisors. There may also be a disconnect between the profit-maximisation goals of bosses and governments’ desire to ensure workplace safety, seeing that the latter may contribute substantially to costs.¹² Such clashes in priorities will lead to suboptimal workplace safety outcomes for MCWs. Thus, policies must evolve to bridge this disconnect.
Recent Policies to Improve Workplace Safety
Heightened Safety Periods
On 1 September 2022, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) announced in a press release that a Heightened Safety Period will be introduced in response to a spate of workplace fatalities. The Heightened Safety Period was intended to last from 1 September 2022 to 28 February 2023, but was later extended to 31 May 2023.¹³
The Heightened Safety Period was accompanied by stronger measures to increase workplace safety.
For one, MOM reserved the right to restrict companies from hiring new foreign employees for a period of up to three months if significant lapses in workplace safety and health (WSH) were identified. These lapses may include unsafe conditions or inadequate risk management controls after severe workplace accidents, among others. In addition, Chief Executives may be held accountable by MOM and requested to implement necessary rectifications.¹⁴
Separately, mandatory Safety Time Out (STO) sessions must be conducted by companies to review their safety procedures and fulfil STO activities. Non-compliance would have led to a one-month prohibition on hiring new foreign employees.
Safety Time Outs
STO sessions are planned events where companies take time off from their daily work routine to take stock of and review WSH systems and work processes, and thereafter, implement measures to control the risk identified.¹⁵ STO sessions may be coordinated at a sectoral or national level in response to an emerging trend or a spate of accidents.
In a typical STO, the STO team will review site practices and conduct risk assessments in four areas:¹⁶
Method: Assessing whether current WSH systems and procedures are in place, and determining if improvements are needed.
Machine: Assessing whether physical equipment and machinery are fit for purpose.
Man: Assessing whether personnel continue to possess the requisite job competencies, or whether refresher training is required.
Action: Taking proactive steps to address the lapses identified to prevent further accidents and losses.
At the end of the STO, employees will be briefed on the STO team’s findings, as well as any improvements to be introduced to improve workplace safety.
Adjustments to Demerit Point System
The Heightened Safety Period and STOs have also been complemented by a stricter demerit point system.¹⁷ More demerit points are now issued to companies for workplace safety breaches. Companies with 25 or more demerit points will be prohibited from hiring MCWs for periods of up to two years.¹⁸
Mandatory Hourly Breaks
To reduce heat stress risks among MCWs performing arduous physical activities, it is now mandatory to give rest breaks when the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature exceeds 32 degrees Celsius. This is to prevent heat injuries by allowing for the dissipation of accumulated body heat.¹⁹
Evaluation of Recent Policies
Heightened Safety Periods and STOs
Workplace fatal injuries fell from 4.5 per month between January and August 2022 to 2.5 per month between September and December 2022. Concurrently, the annualised workplace fatal injury rates improved from 1.5 per 100,000 workers to 0.8 per 100,000 workers (see Figure 2).²⁰ These statistics highlight that the Heightened Safety Period and STOs were effective in increasing workplace safety.
The early success of the policies may be attributed to the penalties entailing non-compliance. Debarments from recruiting new MCWs or renewing contracts with existing ones may pose severe financial setbacks for companies. Thus, companies are incentivised to comply with new policies to maintain operations, and in doing so, align themselves with the Government’s objective of ensuring workplace safety. It should be noted, however, that early successes of the policies may not translate into a sustained drop in workplace accidents or fatalities.
Another point to note is that STOs take up time which could have been spent by companies to meet project requirements. Companies thus have very little incentive to conduct STOs on their own accord, especially if project delays may lead to losses in revenue. By extension, constant enforcement by governmental agencies is needed, without which, STOs may become one-time, unsustainable measures.
Mandatory Hourly Breaks
The policy of mandating hourly breaks, in theory, ensures that MCWs are protected against heat injury. However, the reality could be different, as MCWs often have limited discretion over their work activities. Constant enforcement may thus be needed to ensure that new regulations are adhered to.
The Government has taken firm actions to improve workplace safety for MCWs. Not only do recent policies underscore the importance of maintaining safe work practices, but they also align governmental goals and employer responsibilities by introducing financial penalties for non-compliance. This creates a strong incentive for employers to prioritise and enforce safety protocols consistently.
That being said, transformation does not always need to start from the top. Entities like the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics and Transient Workers Count Too already empower individuals to make a tangible difference in the lives of MCWs. A more caring and compassionate attitude towards migrant workers may also lead to safer workplaces, as locals and foreigners learn to look out for each other.
A synergy of bottom-up and top-down efforts is thus important for ensuring the safety of MCWs at work.
This Policy Explainer was written by members of MAJU. MAJU is an independent, youth-led organisation that focuses on engaging Singaporean youths in a long-term research process to guide them in jointly formulating policy ideas of their own.
By sharing our unique youth perspectives, MAJU hopes to contribute to the policymaking discourse and future of Singapore.