By Joyce Gan

SINGAPORE - The Pan-Island Expressway was the scene of a tragic accident in the early morning of Thursday Aug 23 when a lorry overturned after it was hit by a car. 

There were 15 persons on board the lorry - two in the cabin and 13, all foreign workers, at the back. All the latter 13 were flung out.

This was the injury list: Seven were discharged from hospital by 9pm that night, seven were warded, some with serious head injuries; Indian national Solai Raj, 24, died. Mr Raj came to Singapore from Tamil Nadu, India, to make a living as a construction worker.

The Straits Times reported that 25 foreign workers have been killed or injured in similar accidents since 2001.

Some measures to improve safety have been taken by the Land Transport Authority in recent years but these measures proved to be insufficient to protect the workers in this case. Are additional measures needed?

"Accidents happen everywhere... it's inevitable," said Elizabeth Tan from the Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. The issue is, there is a need for legislation to ensure that workers are transported in a safe mode, she added.

Joyce Koh, Executive Director of the Catholic Social and Community Council commented, "We are [all] responsible in some way. The common sight of lorries crammed with workers may trouble some of us. But we ignore it. Partly because of our busyness, we over-look the needs of our foreign workers and partly because this mode of operation reduces business costs and prices for consumers. The Church's social teaching teaches us that every human life is precious. We have to bear this in our life as we go about our busyness seeking to generate profits or as consumers seeking the lowest cost."

Braema Mathi, chairman of research and policy of Transient Workers Count Too, a migrant workers' rights group, suggested extra railings, metal cages or canopies (to shelter workers from rain and sun), according to a report in the Aug 24 issue of The Straits Times. Although these measures would incur extra costs, "it's a one- off cost", she said. "Moreover, how do you compare such costs with that of a life?"

(continued on page 2)

WHO CARES?

Father Paul Staes cares. He wrote to The Straits Times after the accident. The newspaper published his letter in its Forum section with the headline "Better mode of worker transport needed". Father Paul Staes' letter is reproduced below. We also publish some responses to the priests' letter.

An accident waiting to happen

WHAT HAPPENED LAST Thursday (Aug 23) on the PIE was bound to happen, sooner or later. It must have been a horrible thing to see 13 people being thrown all over the expressway. In a way, I'm surprised that "only" 25 people have been killed or injured since 2001 as a result of being transported as ready projectiles in open pick-up trucks or lorries.

Actually, I'm deeply disturbed each time I see such truckloads of people being transported like cattle on our Singapore roads. I guess it takes having travelled on top of trains or buses (as happens in a number of developing countries) or having been born here (which I am not) before one gets used to this spectacle as something normal.

As a foreigner who's lived in Singapore for some 13 years, I have learnt to appreciate and be proud of many things Singaporean, including National Day celebrations, and it's been a pleasure to introduce many friends to such happenings or customs. However without fail, all my visiting friends have expressed their utter dismay when they saw this mode of transporting workers (mainly foreigners but also locals squatting on top of all kinds of construction debris). They tell me they never expected to see this in a modern place like Singapore. To my embarrassment I must then confess that it doesn't look like this practice might soon be something of the past.

In her ST article, Lin Xinyi calls for "extra safety features on vehicles" and mentions that this will entail additional costs. Honestly, what we need is much more than that, at least if we want Singapore to be a first- class society across the board. Even if the workers themselves may be used to this, the prevailing mode of transporting workers flies in the face of our self-respect as well as of the image of Singapore we want to project to visiting guests.

(continued on page 3)

"We need more activists like Father Paul Staes to change the deep-seated mindsets of our society. We are too content to let sleeping dogs lie and not upset the status quo. This is a reflection of our laziness and indifference. It takes an expatriate to point out our blindness. Of course, Father Paul is not so much an expatriate but really one of us, Singaporeans!"

- Ken Soon, 63, St. Ignatius

"It is common to see lorries and pickups with workers sitting at the back during heavy traffic, oblivious to dangers. I notice many workers are feeling tired and sleepy after a hard day's work. It is sad to say that many employers are only concerned with making profits without considering the safety of their workers."

- Lawrence Wong, 58, St. Stephen

"I agree on the issue of providing a means of transportation that is more dignified for humans. I am ashamed to say that I have not also written in to the papers though I have many times felt indignant at such poor treatment of our fellow human beings especially when they are here to work for a pittance to support their families back home. I feel that I don't have the time nor energy to start anything big to change the situation beyond talking about it with my friends and family, and doing my bit to show these workers basic respect and courtesy. But I would like to be able to support any corporate action."

- Stella Soon, 32, Christ the King

"Saw some China workers on a truck sitting on scaffolding. The sides of the truck were made of wooden frames - very flimsy! I felt scared for them and was ashamed as there seemed nothing I could do."

- Yvonne Yee, 41, St. Anthony

"I am happy that Father Paul has voiced what many Singaporeans have been uncomfortable about, not withstanding our silence on this matter. Perhaps, as typical Singaporeans, we are waiting for the government or union to step in to raise workers' occupational safety. I think it is a shame, as this mode of transportation is not only hazardous but also unpleasant as workers at the back of open trucks often have to endure sudden heavy downpours with nothing better than a loose sheet of newspaper or plastic sheet over their heads."

- Ruby Toh, St. Teresa

"I think the solution to ferrying workers in open lorries is for the government to re-impose a ban on such practices. It was done in the past. But many contractors protested and the government then gave a concession by limiting the number of workers for each vehicle and requiring seats to be provided. I hope Father Paul's letter will make the government rethink the danger of such a practice and impose safety measures."

- Willy Kwang, 77, St. Stephen

(continued on page 4)

"I think we need to be social activists sometimes, and writing to the newspaper is a start."

- Joseph Santoso, 48, St. Bernadette

"Somehow these days, there's a lack of police presence on the road to deter speedsters and other reckless driving practices."

- Clifford Goh, 53, Immaculate Heart of Mary

"It has been happening here for along time. I sure hope and pray that the letter in the forum will be heard and something will be done. Its a hope for now."

- George Punnoose, 44, St. Stephen

"The authorities have looked into the horrible housing of foreign workers, but they have overlooked the conveyance and safety of humans."

- Clarence Nonis, 70, Christ the King

"Father Paul is right that many of us have grown thick-skinned over such matters. It is something all of us have to be reminded of, the dignity of the other person."

- Gabriel Chong, 68, Our Lady of Perpetual Succour

"Hopefully, the people who can really make a difference read Father Paul's letter and do something."

- Juliana Tay, 52, St. Stephen

"It is good to voice your opinion/suggestions in the Forum of ST where a large number of people will read it and take notice. Perhaps the relevant authority will come out with some measures to curb the practices."

- Paul Tan, 60, St. Francis of Assisi

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