A troubling question

After days of being criticised for not issuing any Stop-Work Orders for construction workers, especially foreign workers, two ministers – Ng Eng Hen, the head of the Haze Inter-Ministerial Committee, and Tan Chuan Jin, Acting Manpower Minister, together with the deputy secretary general of the NTUC, Heng Chee How – paid a visit to a construction site on Monday.

It is reported here on TODAY:

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[Incidentally, interesting to note that the headlines say “ministries planning for worst-case scenario”. The original Haze Task Force was formed in 1994 and has thus been around for almost 20 years. One would think that “planning” for worst-case scenarios would have been done by now.]

The ministers had also conducted a press conference on the same day. The Acting Manpower Minister outlined what employers and employees should do if conditions should deteriorate and the haze returns. You can read the report on these in TODAY and the Straits Times.

What remains unanswered, however, is why construction (and other outdoor) workers continue to have to to work under hazardous conditions when even our soldiers and members of the Singapore Civil Defence Force are deemed unfit to be outdoors or to undertake outfield activities, as this report by the Straits Times on 20 June said:

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The SAF took the action when the PSI reached a record high then of 321.

It is interesting to note that the SCDF had a much lower threshold of PSI-100 before it “reduced physical and outdoor training”. Separately, the SMRT also suspended all outdoor maintenance work for its staff on 19 June.

Minister Tan Chuan Jin said at the abovementioned press conference:

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“It’s not just about the economy, it’s not just about making money as some people look at it. It’s really about our way of life, to ensure as much normalcy as possible.”

The Prime Minister had also earlier said that it is not possible for everything to come to a stop, or words to that effect.

This is all well and good and in some ways it is good to see the ministries becoming more proactive (some say they are reactive) in looking out for workers, as the visit to the construction site by the two ministers shows (even though this comes after much criticisms earlier were directed at them for not caring enough about these workers.)

Nonetheless, a troubling question remains, and it is this:

Why is work stopped for our soldiers, civil defence personnel and even SMRT workers while construction workers are expected to continue to work, even in PSI-400 conditions?

If “it’s not just about making money”, as Tan Chuan Jin says, then why could not the government issue a Stop-Work Order for construction workers – those workers who engage in heavy labour and manual work?

I’d posted this on Tan Chuan Jin’s Facebook page:

SAF cancelled all “outfield activities” to “ensure the well-being and safety of the soldiers” when the PSI hit 321.

“Other organisations here, such as the Singapore Civil Defence Force, reduced physical and outdoor training when the index crossed 100.”

And yet we are ok with construction (and other outdoor) workers working under PSI-400 conditions. 

Safety of our workers is “paramount”, some ministers said. I fail to understand how this is so, given this disparity in how each group is treated.

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The Prime Minister had said, in his speech at the launch of the 2013 Workplace Safety and Health Campaign just last month:

We as the Government, also as an employer and owner of projects, will take the lead in this effort.”

He ended his speech with:

Never trade off workers’ safety for cost or for time.”

How does this square with the apparently different treatment we give to different sectors of our workforce?

Visiting construction sites and distributing masks are well and good but I hope the ministers will keep in mind that safety applies and must apply equally to all workers – be they foreign or local.

Which part of “our way of life” says workers should continue to work under hazardous conditions so that we can “ensure as much normalcy as possible”?

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3 thoughts on “A troubling question

  1. Andrew, thanks for speaking up and being a conscience of our society. Its not easy and some of us do appreciate it !!!

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