Yawning Bread. March 2007

Life in construction




Prapad wanted to be a welder, but prior to coming to Singapore from Thailand, he had trained as a carpenter. Informally, a fellow Thai construction worker had taught him how to weld, but he needed to prove himself to his supervisor.

Working on the linkway [2] gave him the chance. Linkways are relatively simple structures.

He asked his supervisor if he could do the welding that day and got a 'yes' for an answer. Here's the welding set. There were no visors. It didn't matter. Prapad put on his sunglasses and proceeded to weld.

Three days later, he told his Singaporean boyfriend about it and about how his eyes hurt. The boyfriend was horrified to hear the story and promptly took him to the hospital, where his eyes out were washed out and 4 specks of soot or grit found. Fortunately, there was unlikely to be any lasting damage, the doctor said.

Questions. How can a supervisor permit a worker to start welding without the necessary safety equipment? How can an uncertified welder weld a structure that may one day collapse on people's heads?

* * * * *

Hafiz and his fellow workers from Bangladesh were tasked by their supervisor to move some large sheets of metal. In the course of doing so, the sheets slipped and Hafiz suffered a bad gash on his forearm. To everybody else it looked like it needed medical attention and stitching.

The supervisor said otherwise. Carry on working, he said.

When the workers complained, he gave Hafiz S$50 to "take care of the problem". The workers were still not happy. The injury was more serious than a pay-off could "take care" of, but what could they do? If they complained to the authorities, they might be out of a job.

* * * * *

These are stories I heard over the weekend and they should stir our conscience. But unless somebody has reported the specifics to the industrial safety authorities, they are not investigated nor culprits held to account. Few would know.

But as you can see from the above, all too often supervisors themselves do not want news of their own culpability to leak out while the workers are too unempowered to do much for themselves.

Thus what we read in the press must be just the tip of the iceberg, and usually that's because it has unavoidably become a newsworthy story, as when someone has died or is injured seriously enough for the authorities to prosecute. See the sidebar.

As far as the web is concerned, for all the chatter there about "alternative news and views" and the "public conscience", it is even less well positioned to carry stories like these. Face the fact: Those of us who use the internet to communicate and propound are hardly representative of Singaporeans and our fellow residents on this island. Our chatter is skewed towards issues that interest the young and well heeled. There's a whole population out there, struggling to make a living, sometimes under dangerous conditions and uncaring bosses, who have no access to the internet. Their stories are not told.

* * * * *

There is also a lighter side to things. Here is something I overheard and saw on a crowded, standing-room-only bus.

Ah Kiat was a tanned, late-thirties, working-class guy. Maybe Singaporean, maybe Malaysian. One stop after he got on, he noticed by chance an ex-colleague getting onto the same bus. Ah Kiat motioned to the Bangla guy -- let's call him Sayeed -- to squeeze his way through to where he was.

"How are you?" Sayeed said in greeting.

"OK lah," Ah Kiat replied.

"Got work?"

"Just find. One or two month ago. And you?"

"Ya," said Sayeed. "Boss send me to another project."


"Pasir Panjang."

Over the next few minutes, I pieced together that it had been a while since they last saw each other. Ah Kiat had either resigned or been laid off, but he had since found a new job with a grocery shop.

Sayeed, quite a good-looking, short, stocky guy with a broad smile, had been transferred from one worksite to another and appeared quite happy with his situation.

"What you do now?" Sayeed enquired.

"Work in shop lah," Ah Kiat said. "Only now finish. You see, 10 o'clock then go home."

"Good money, no? Got overcome lah," Sayeed seemed a little envious.

"Where got overtime in shop? $800 only, ah."

"800 one day?" Sayeed asked, his eyes opening wide. Foreign workers' wages are usually stated on a per-day basis, so that's what he's used to.

"Your head, ah. 800 one day," Ah Kiat got quite animated.


"800 one month lah."

Sayeed was either too polite or too stunned to respond. He just smiled.

"So long can survive," Ah Kiat added, pensively. "Think so lah. See how lah."

Sayeed remained smiling. The bus was getting increasingly packed and they were standing very close together.

"I ask the boss can pay more or not," the local guy continued, "but he always say no money." Then he started getting agitated. "What no money. He take Chinese girl and pay her $200. For what? For touch here... touch there."

His vocabulary failing him, Ah Kiat instinctively demonstrated the "here" and the "there". For the "here", he made a rotary motion on Sayeed's chest around the nipples. For the "there", he reached behind his friend's buttocks with his other hand. They were just the subtlest of movements, as they were so close to each other that all it took was a flick of a wrist to touch the chest or buttocks, but I was close enough to notice.

Sayeed tried to sound sympathetic. "You tell him you work many hours lah."

"No use lah. I ask him many times already. Every week, he got new Chinese girl. Actually, by right should be my money, but he spend on girl. Touch here..." -- and he unthinkingly fondled Sayeed's chest again.

"Touch there..." -- this time, it was his upper arm.

And so the conversation went on, as Ah Kiat increasingly betrayed his unhappiness. Despite the subject veering a little to what was going on at Pasir Panjang and whether someone called Ah Boon was still with the construction firm, every minute or so, Ah Kiat would come back to the Chinese girls and their $200 fees like a bad refrain. Every minute or so, his hands would act out his employer's "touch here, touch there" on Sayeed -- shoulder, chest, abdomen, and at one point amusingly close to "down there".

And so it went on. Two men talking about money, about how hard life was, about unreasonable bosses, and amidst the aggravation, one man was repeatedly, absent-mindedly, molesting the other. Who smiled calmly through it all. 

Yawning Bread 



15 March 2007 
Straits Times

3 killed by toxic fumes

A construction company director was fined $100,000 and his company a further $200,000 yesterday for contravening safety rules, which contributed to the death of three Thai workers two years ago.

The incident took place on the fourth day of Chinese New Year on Feb 12, 2005. Rushing to complete a project, sub-contractor Rynamo Building Services assigned five workers to spray-paint a culvert under a bridge on Choa Chu Kang Way.

Three of the Thai employees who were put to work without safety gear - Thongchai Haratphaeo, 35; Samai Seeliamngam, 28; and Khunthiang Duangthapchan, 39 - died from toxic fumes emitted by the paint and thinner.

Staff of main contractor Or Kim Peow Contractors (OKP) were on leave that day and unaware Rynamo employees were working.

Rynamo director, 45-year-old Raymond Tan Chee Choon, was fined $100,000 by a district court. His firm was also fined $100,000 for not ensuring adequate ventilation at the worksite and another $100,000 for failing to provide respirators to its workers. The maximum fine is $200,000 for each offence.

OKP, meanwhile, was fined $15,000 for allowing soil to pile up at the entrance to the culvert and failing to provide safe access to it. It could have been fined a maximum $20,000.

District Judge Chia Wee Kiat said 'This is a very sad and tragic case with horrendous circumstances. Three lives were lost and their families altered forever.'

The court had heard that OKP was widening Choa Chu Kang Way and had engaged Rynamo to paint the culverts. Eight culverts had already been finished.

Workers had complained of breathing difficulties two weeks before Mr Samai and another worker, Mr Amuai Wongiaroen, went to paint the last culvert at 10am that day. They had a mechanical blower to supply fresh air and Mr Samai was also given a dust mask and gloves, as he was doing the spray-painting.

Less than two hours later, both were forced to leave the culvert as they felt dizzy and nauseous, and found it difficult to breathe.

Mr Thongchai and Mr Khunthiang took over at midday, after being warned by their fellow workers of the dangers.

At 1.30pm, Mr Samai and Mr Amuai heard their co-workers cry out and rushed in to help.

Unable to breathe, Mr Amuai climbed out immediately but passed out at the entrance of the culvert, where he was found by the foreman, Mr Ang Eng Siong.

The bodies of the other three men had to be recovered by civil defence officers.

An autopsy confirmed that they died of cardiac and respiratory failure caused by inhaling toxic fumes from the paint and thinner.

Investigations also revealed that the ventilation provided by the blower was inadequate and that Mr Samai's dust mask offered no protection against the fumes.




  1. All names have been changed.

  2. A linkway is a sheltered walkway.
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