States of the Union is an ongoing series featuring brief pieces by writers we admire from around the world. Some of the writers are in exile, some communicate from within a country ruled by a regime they defy. Read editor-in-chief Dale Peck’s introduction to the series here. For the full series, click here.
Despite the glamorous light of this country, the lives of the migrants from different countries who work day and night to build modern Singapore, whose sweat illuminates this city, are in darkness. These workers are suffering from various problems, chief among which is the danger of their transportation to work sites. Today, the lorries used in this country for transporting workers have turned into death vehicles. Many lorry accidents have taken place this year, and the death rate from lorry accidents is much higher than in other years.
The lorry accident on April 20 this year hurt me a lot. At around 6 a.m. that day, seventeen construction workers were on their way to work in Woodlands, in the north of Singapore, when their lorry collided with a stationary tipping truck. Mr. Hossain Toffazal, a 33-year-old Bangladeshi national, died after he was extricated from the crushed end of the lorry. The other workers were rushed to the hospital, where another victim, Mr. Sugunan Sudheeshmon, a 28-year-old Indian national, died of multiple injuries. Both men were the sole breadwinners in their families, who are now mired in economic hardship. This and other such accidents are a very shameful thing in a country of highly educated people. When people all over the world chanted slogans in favor of humanity this year, the sky became heavy with the cries of migrant workers in this country.
In order to avoid such accidents, various recommendations have been made several times to the relevant authorities. A simple solution is to switch lorries for buses, but the latter are deemed too expensive. The issue of transportation has even been debated in Parliament. Lawyers have weighed in, and they all think that a lorry is primarily for transporting goods, not people. Despite such opposition, this fierce vehicle is moving through this country with its head held high, often giving the gift of death. Sadly, the issue has not become important to Singaporeans. Maybe they don't understand this sensitive issue because they don't use this vehicle called a lorry.
Singaporeans have yet to understand that the migrant workers of this country are imprisoned by the law. They can't be tough on employers if they want to. As a result, the workers have been forced to accept an inhumane transportation system for fear of losing their jobs. Business owners do not want to increase their costs by switching from lorries to buses. They would rather risk the lives of their workers. They change the model of the lorries every year, but there is no change in the transportation system for the workers. The workers of this country go to work year after year, poorly sheltered from the sun and rain. How a cargo vehicle is allowed to carry people in this modern country is really amazing and questionable. I don't know of any other country in the world that transports workers in this way.
When I first arrived in Singapore I was overwhelmed with joy to see this clean and tidy city, but I was also very upset to see many other things. One of them was riding to work in a lorry. Our appointment letter had not mentioned the lorry. When the lorry stopped at the red light, people in expensive cars stared at us. I felt very ashamed. Workers who come to this country have to adapt to a lot. In all cases, they come with dreams. In most cases, they have had to sell their land or repay their loan to the employment agencies in order to work away from home. I was no exception. I accepted this miserable situation in the hope of fulfilling my dream. I have lost the sense of shame now that I have been going to work in a lorry for a long time. Not only shame, I have lost the fear of death! I am mentally prepared that I could die in a lorry accident at any time!
Workers have always been neglected in favor of business. During this pandemic, the inequality between business owners and workers is glaring. Dormitory mismanagement and transportation arrangement are two main reasons why migrant workers in Singapore are infected with the coronavirus. You cannot sleep apart in the small dormitory, and you cannot sit apart in a lorry. Unable to maintain distance from each other, the workers are constantly suffering from various diseases.
Migrant workers make up about a quarter of the country's population. They have come to this dream city from Bangladesh, China, Thailand, Myanmar, and India. Although their contracts extol opportunities in many areas, they do not match the reality. As a result, the workers feel deceived. I don't know when the feeling of humanity will be awakened in the minds of the people of this country towards these workers!
Born in 1978 in the village of Dilalpur, Bangladesh, Md Sharif Uddin arrived in Singapore in 2008. He currently works as a Safety Coordinator in a construction company. Sharif's short stories and poems have been published in Singapore and Bangladesh. His memoir Stranger to Myself is the winner in the nonfiction category in the Singapore Book Awards in 2018. His second volume of nonfiction, Stranger to My World, has just been published by Landmark Books in Singapore.
Image by Hippolyte Baraduc (1850-1902). Reproduced from L'âme humaine: ses mouvements, ses lumières et l'iconographie de l'invisible fluidique (The human soul: its movements, its lights, and the iconography of the fluidic invisible), Paris: Librairie internationale de la pensée nouvelle, 1913.