Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The unacceptable cost of cheap labour

First thing in the morning and late at night, Singapore's tree-lined highways are full of lorries and trucks carrying a vital cargo: the migrant workers from Bangladesh and India who are the backbone of the Lion City's economic miracle.

Crammed into the rear deck, the only protection they have from the scorching sun and the perpetual downpours is a bit of plastic sheeting. But the weather is the least of their worries.

Before sunrise on Monday morning, four workers from India and Bangladesh set off from their humble quarters for the shipyard where they were employed. But none of them arrived at work after the lorry they were travelling in hit the back of a larger truck parked by the roadside and they were killed in the collision.

One of the victims had been travelling in the front passenger seat but the other three had been sitting in the back of their vehicle. Six others were injured but survived.

The fatal accident has once more brought the shoddy treatment of migrant workers in Singapore to public attention.

While cattle are transported in comfortable air-conditioned surroundings, Singapore's construction and shipping workers are afforded no such luxury.

The authorities only stipulate that each worker has at least 0.372 square metres of floor space and that lorries do not carry more people than they are licensed to.

210 people were injured while traveling in the back of lorries in Singapore last year and two killed. 186 were hurt in 2007 and two killed.

So long as unscrupulous companies are allowed to carry people in worse conditions than animals, the deaths and injuries will continue.

The Gulf state of Bahrain, which does not exactly have a reputation as a haven of workers' rights, has introduced a ban on using trucks to transport labourers.

But Singapore seems to have no intention of altering the status quo, largely because of the purported costs to business in a state that is dependent on external trade and investment. (It's obviously cheaper to pay the odd hospital bill and coffin shipping costs than it is to hire a mini-bus.)

It's a pretty despicable situation that reflects a xenophobic attitude to foreign labour. People are happy to milk the economic benefits of cheaply imported workers but are not so willing to accord them rights and respect.

Nimby-ist Singaporeans complain whenever a foreign workers' hostel is built in their vicinity and, according to one earnest writer in the Straits Times today, if migrant labourers were to be given public transport passes instead of being thrown onto the back of trucks, "some segments of the local population may complain about having to share standing space in trains and buses with foreign workers".

No comments:

Post a Comment