Buildings in Singapore, on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023.
A manual laborer from India has successfully sued his employers in Singapore for negligence after he fell off the back of an overcrowded lorry, in a rare legal win for migrant workers that has renewed debate about their treatment in the wealthy city state.
Ramalingam Murugan, a 37-year-old father of three from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, had fractured his leg in 2021 while disembarking from an overcrowded truck, leaving him unable to work, court documents said.
The accident had caused him immense pain, his lawyer Muhamad Ashraf Syed Ansarai from the Yeo Perumal Mohideen Law Corporation told CNN.
“He injured himself coming down from a lorry which was overcrowded – a simple thing that turned out to be risky,” Ansarai said. “But it is not uncommon for companies, especially those involved in heavy construction, to take risk assessments for granted,” he added.
Singapore, one of the world’s richest and most developed countries, has benefited enormously from cheap foreign labor for decades.
Workers like Murugan and others from countries in the region like Bangladesh, China and Vietnam take on difficult and often dangerous jobs working in construction and the maritime industry, toiling outdoors for long hours sometimes in extreme weather, and without minimum wage.
To get to work sites from their dormitories which are located on the outskirts of the city state, they are transported on the back of lorries – often overcrowded and without passenger seats or seat belts – a common practice in the industry that has resulted in numerous road accidents and fatalities for workers over the years and which critics say is an examples of businesses prioritizing profits over lives.
On April 21, 2021, a lorry carrying 17 migrant workers to a work site collided with a tipper truck along an expressway, killing two men – Toffazal Hossain from Bangladesh and Sugunan Shudeeshmon from India. Both men were fathers and the sole breadwinners of their families.
In July, 26 men were taken to hospitals after three lorries, two ferrying migrant workers, collided on a major highway. Officers from the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) used hydraulic rescue equipment to free two men who became trapped in the front seat of the vehicle.
A day later, another lorry, which was ferrying at least 10 workers, collided with a car on an expressway. All the workers were taken to hospital to treat their injuries, officials said.
Migrant workers sit in the back of a lorry in Singapore on May 15, 2020.
Labor rights groups have called for a ban to the practice which has in the past been endorsed by several government agencies.
“We recognize that it isn’t ideal for workers to be transported on lorries but we also understand the genuine concerns from employers,” Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Transport Amy Khor said in responses to questions fielded in parliament on August 2. “Employers have stated that if the government imposes a ban, many companies, especially small and medium enterprises, will not be able to continue operating their businesses,” she continued.
“Our efforts will focus on improving safety for all road users,” Khor added.
“My ministry has been working closely with the relevant government agencies as well as industry associations to progressively implement a suite of additional measures to improve safety for our workers.”
Addressing the fatal accident in 2021, Khor previously said further regulations like banning the transportation of workers in lorries would “likely impact” various building projects for businesses looking to keep costs down in the country’s post pandemic recovery.
“From a road safety perspective, it would be ideal for lorries not to carry any passengers in their rear decks but there are very significant practical and operational issues on top of just cost considerations,” Khor said.
Murugan’s accident occurred on January 3, 2021.
Court documents seen by CNN said he had been ferried with at least 24 other workers on the back of a lorry from their dormitory to a work site and was the fourth to alight from the vehicle. It had been raining heavily.
Murugan testified he had been pushed by another worker who was in a hurry to seek shelter from the rain, causing him to lose his balance and hit the ground with full impact.
He was taken to hospital when pain in his right knee failed to subside.
He underwent surgery for a leg fracture and was placed on medical leave for about five months. “The injury left him unable to work,” Ansarai said. “And even if he could, he would not have been able to fulfill basic duties required as his knee injury was causing him great pain.”
In 2022, he launched a lawsuit against Rigel Marine Services, seeking 100,000 Singapore dollars ($73,500) in damages.
He argued the company failed to institute or enforce a safe system of transport for himself and other workers and did not carry out risk assessments to identify potential hazards.
Representatives for Rigel Marine Services denied the claims and said Murugan’s accident was “caused by his own carelessness in failing to watch his footing before alighting from the lorry.” The company also counter-claimed for the medical expenses and medical leave wages that had been paid to and for Murugan.
A view of Singapore's subordinate courts.
But on August 17, District Judge Tan May Tee ruled in favor of Murugan, saying that there had clearly been “a breach of duty by the company.”
“Without proper supervision and the maintenance of some order or discipline in alighting, the plaintiff had been pushed by his coworkers, which resulted in him losing his balance and falling,” Tan said.
She added that she found no contributory negligence on Murugan’s part and said there had been no way for him to avoid the accident as the vehicle was “not meant to carry more than 22 persons at the time.”
“I therefore find that there was no proper and safe system in place for the safe access and or egress from the deck of the lorry at the material time,” Tan said.
Damages awarded to Murugan will be assessed at a later stage, the judge said.
CNN reached out to Rigel Marine Services for comment. Lawyers said the company had no further comment following legal proceedings.
In a statement released through his lawyer, Murugan said he was “looking forward to closure of this matter.
“I’m hopeful I get a reasonable compensation for my injuries which have caused me to suffer greatly,” he added.
He also expressed hope that other workers like himself would be inspired by his decision.
“There may be workers who get injured and don’t seek compensation because they are scared (and) sometimes told that seeking compensation will prevent them from returning to Singapore. I hope such workers come forward and seek help.”
“I also hope that companies pay more attention to the safety of workers as we are often told to take on very risky work and sometimes have no choice but to follow,” he added.
Migrant workers at a construction site in Singapore on May 3, 2023.
Singapore is home to about 1.4 million migrant workers, nearly a quarter of its population.
Workers who previously spoke to CNN shared their concerns about living and working conditions but many remained hesitant to voice their disapproval of arrangements like lorry transport for fear of reprisals from their bosses and the authorities.
A collective statement signed by 47 organizations and members of the public said current safety measures for migrant workers were “inadequate” and called on the government to ban ferrying workers on lorries and mandate the use of buses.
“Recent tragic incidents have highlighted the continued grave risks posed by transporting migrant workers on lorries,” the statement read.
“We urgently call upon the Ministry of Transport to consider worker safety on roads and provide a time line to ban this unsafe practice in the future.”
“By communicating an intention to ban this unsafe practice… we can send a powerful message about our commitment to ensuring the well being of all workers in Singapore – regardless of their nationality or occupation.”
Responding to the petitions and media queries, Singapore’s Ministry of Transport (MOT) released a statement on August 2 that agreed with the “importance of safety” but said there were “mixed views” about a ban.
“Employers and industry associations have shared their concerns that if the government imposes a ban, many companies will not be able to continue operating their business,” MOT said.
“Beyond financial costs, there are also structural and operational challenges including the availability of alternative modes of transportation.”
The ministry added that chartered buses “may not be suitable for specialist trades” that needed to transport small crews “together with equipment or goods to several different locations within a single day.” The situation is exacerbated by a shortage of bus drivers in Singapore,” it said.
Still, victories for migrant workers are rare, said local civil rights activist Jolovan Wham and a worker taking on his powerful employer was almost unheard of.
“The ruling serves an important milestone,” Wham told CNN.
“It shows the urgency for the Singapore government and its relevant agencies to act. Protection needs to be legislated and safer transport be made mandatory and the government has been dragging its feet on this issue for years.”
Murugan had been “relieved” when the verdict was delivered, his lawyer said. “He’s been waiting anxiously for two and a half years since it (the accident happened) and is back in India,” Ansarai said, adding that he’s “recovered to an extent but is still unable to work.”
“He has three daughters and a wife, as well as his parents, to support. It’s been a significant strain on him.”
Currently he has no plans to return to Singapore.
“He just can’t take on work like before,” Ansarai said.