For male migrant workers, falling from heights is a common cause of death. This can happen when companies fail to erect blocking structures and install safety guards around holes and ledges. For example, in 2012, Zhou Shi Hong fell after the company failed to put guardrails on an open stairwell, and did not provide lifelines for workers to anchor their safety harnesses to. The company was eventually fined $150,000.
Deaths occurring from being crushed or struck by an object are the next most common, and often stem from a lack of proper training and supervision, as well as the failure to audit risks and follow protocols. In 2016, Xu Shangbin died after being struck by an excavator driven by his colleague who was unlicensed to operate it, while Venugopal Sarath Kumar died from lack of proper training for the relevant lifting task, and his company’s failure to appoint a supervisor or conduct a risk assessment. Employers for both workers were fined.
Fires and explosions similarly arise from rushed schedules and lack of proper supervision. In 2002, Anowar Hossain Kafil Uddin died from an explosion while laying pipes for the Family and Juvenile Court building, and the construction company was found to have folded before it could be charged for negligent supervision. Vehicular deaths—defined as those occurring on-site, not when workers are ferried by lorries outside of the worksite—also occur due to mismanaged worksite traffic, including failing to demarcate human-only areas.
Many of the challenges that female migrant workers face are distinctly different—they are more susceptible to domestic abuse. The case of Piang Ngaih Don, a domestic worker who came from Myanmar to support her toddler son, shows what can happen in a system that concentrates power in the hands of an employer over an individual. Tied to window grilles, starved, punched, burnt, and strangled, she lost half her body weight over the course of a year and died in 2016 at age 24. When seen by a doctor, her employer was able to play off Ms Piang’s injuries as her being “clumsy”. Justice was finally served in 2021, when the employer was sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment.
These are neither one-off incidents, nor are they new developments. These workplace risks have been common causes of deaths for over two decades. These patterns also show up in incidences of non-fatal injuries, suggesting that the same issues are elevating safety risks across the board. It does make one wonder if these deaths and injuries can be prevented with greater safety legislation.
Exact figures for migrant workers’ injuries are not publicly available, but between 2014 and 2021, an average of 12,770 workers (including Singaporeans) were injured every year. Most of these occurred in construction and manufacturing.
Driving both injuries and deaths are systemic issues that stem from cost pressures, tight deadlines, and a manpower crunch. This results in the lack of adequate training, supervision, equipment maintenance, and risk audits, as well as more overtime work. Many companies still adopt a “compliance mindset”, choosing to do the bare minimum in the name of safety, or only doing things “for show”, seeing safety as a cost or optional in the service of non-negotiable profit.