Recent news about the outbreak of the Zika virus and the death of yet another construction worker in a work-related accident points to poor living conditions and serious lapses affecting the safety of workers on construction sites.

Cases of dengue outbreaks and Chikugunya have been reported before in the past and they usually occur in areas where migrant workers live. Therefore, the latest revelation that the majority of affected victims are migrant construction workers is not surprising.

We are also deeply concerned that there were 49 construction site deaths in the last 8 months alone. Even though there is a significant reduction of fatality rates from 2.4 per 100,000 persons in 2004 to 1.8 per 100,000 persons in 2014, it still falls far below standards in developed economies such as Great Britain and Germany, where work place fatalities have been reported to be below 1.0 per 100,000 persons.

Employers pay little attention to the hygiene, safety and cleanliness of workers’ living quarters on construction sites due to the transient nature of their stay there. It is also more convenient and cheaper to house them in these sites than to accommodate them in purpose built dormitories which provide better conditions. In the worst cases, they are made to live in buildings which are still under construction. Inadequate drainage results in pools of stagnant water forming whenever it rains, turning these work sites into breeding grounds for mosquitos. Such quarters are often dusty, sandy and pest infested with inadequate sanitation with inferior bath and shower facilities.

The regulations for such housing is minimal and far lower than that of purpose built dormitories and temporary housing structures. For example, in BCA’s Use of Buildings Under Construction as Workers’ Quarters Regulations 2008 only ensures that the building is structurally safe and the rooms workers are housed in are of sufficient height and land space. Standards of ventilation and hygiene in the regulations are vaguely worded and sanitation facilities are inadequate.

The government’s approach so far does not adequately address abuse and exploitation, and these are problems which affect work site safety, hygiene and cleanliness. Tackling these issues has to be part of a comprehensive strategy to prevent disease outbreaks and accidents.

For instance, large numbers of construction workers labour between 10 to 16 hours every day, seven days a week. They pay thousands of dollars in recruitment fees and are afraid of losing their jobs and being repatriated to their countries of origin. Workers “agree” to long punishing hours because of low pay and debts. Employers extort kickbacks from these men with impunity, and many do not wish to file complaints about sub-standard living conditions or poor work site safety as they do not wish to “kick up a fuss” and lose their jobs. They are also afraid of being “blacklisted” by their employers which could result in them not being able to work in Singapore again.

Long working hours and poor living conditions affect the mental health and alertness of workers, factors which are crucial in avoiding work place accidents and mishaps. Workers have also told us that safety officers on sites are often representatives of the companies, making it difficult for them to highlight unsafe work practices and situations. HOME has also heard from construction companies that pressure to meet tight deadlines has led to long hours so that projects can be completed on time.

HOME recommends the Workplace Safety and Health Council to do the following:

Review existing guidelines and legislation allowing workers to live on construction sites.

Ban the practice of allowing workers to live in buildings under construction.

Ensure work accident whistleblowers and workers who have recovered from the Zika virus are not wrongfully dismissed and can seek alternative employment if they are terminated by their employers. The Ministry of Manpower should work with agencies such as the WDA to facilitate job searches for such workers.

Their salaries should also not be deducted for medical treatment.

Review construction project deadlines to ensure that workloads and productivity targets are reasonable and do not compromise the well being of workers.

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