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Did Singapore do right by our workers?



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While Singapore was blanketed under toxic haze last week, many people wondered when the stop-work order was going to be issued by the local government.

However, both Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Ng Eng Hen, chairman of the newly set up Haze Inter-Ministerial Committee, said a stop-work order was neither sustainable nor necessary, prompting locals to voice concern online.

Many companies in Singapore went ahead and carried out contingency plans for workers, such as halting food delivery services, closing outdoor operations and allowing employees to work from home.

Several companies also provided employees with N95 gas masks and some even installed air purifiers in the offices and branches.

But even though these organisations took those measures without any directives by the government, I still think more could have been done.

Many construction sites carried on work through the two days that the haze hit PSI record-levels of more than 300. Sure, some workers were seen donning masks, but still, a lot of the work carried on.

An advisory on the Ministry of Manpower’s website states should the PSI reading exceed 300 and 400, employers are responsible for providing a safe working environment, and need to carry out risks assessments to determine the impact of the haze on workers’ health.

“If the risk of ill health cannot be mitigated, the work activity should stop,” it stated.

However, it remains that no official stop-work order was issued, nor were we informed at which PSI reading one would be.

Just after midnight on Thursday, Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan Jin, posted on his Facebook page: “I understand the desire for immediate answers. It is not the bureaucracy or the briefings that drive things. It’s the substance of the next steps. These events are scheduled for when we anticipate some of the details would be ready, so that we can announce and explain and clarify accordingly.

“Our areas of concerns remain focused on those working outdoors, especially if under strenuous conditions and/or being outdoors on a prolonged basis. We also need to ascertain essential services and how best to provide these in a manner that is safe for our workers.”

I think I speak on behalf of Singaporeans when I say none of us were expecting work to completely stop across all sectors. It really came down to concern about the health and safety of people who had to work outdoors, especially those with laborious job scopes.

Again, I reiterate the fact that many companies did take precautionary measures.

However, an official directive would have ensured that companies took the health issues seriously, and be placed in a position where they were not able to put profit before people.

The good news is the haze situation in Singapore is getting better, and PSI levels over the weekend hovered predominantly around the 100 mark, with the PM2.5 reading dropping significantly as well. We may be on our way out of the woods this time, but let’s take the events of last week as a learning experience for all.

And should we be hit by the same challenges a year from now, hopefully employers and authorities alike would have procedures and systems in place to better manage the situation.

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