Working And Living In The Haze And Dust In Singapore

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The stairs had their tiles peeled off. All that was, was bare jagged concrete. As we walked up the stairs, the dust floated upwards and hovered in the air. Outside, the haze had reached its peak of a PSI reading of above 300. Thankfully, as the afternoon wore on, the winds were finally slowly dispersing it.

The construction site was dusty. The workers were used to the dust but they were certainly caught off-guard by the haze. Like many younger Singaporeans who have not lived through the haze in 1997 or remember it, these workers were ill-informed about the haze.

We asked the worker if he knew what the haze could do to his health and he shrugged. They hadn’t been briefed in detail about the haze but were told that if they were to feel unwell, that they should seek medical attention. When asked if he knew what the PSI reading stood for and that a PSI reading above 300 is considered hazardous, he looked on bewildered.

The workers were concerned about the haze but they didn’t know what else they could do, but work. They were no stop work orders, in the event that the haze were to reach hazardous levels. Moreover, if they had to stop working even if it was because of the haze, they wouldn’t be able to get paid. Can you imagine if you had to stop work for a few days and your company refused to pay you your salary?

But these workers don’t have a choice. They aren’t even aware of their full rights. It is hard when you are an individual in a foreign land, who had travelled all the way here, hoping to seek better opportunities. Yet, if you didn’t know anyone and all you knew was the employer that you had been contracted to work for, and fellow workers who were also submitted to their work, you just want to get it on and done with. Can you imagine going on your own to a foreign country, hoping to find work and not knowing what you might be getting yourself into? But we would most probably have it much easier – our living conditions would be significantly better, I would imagine.

We asked him if the air pollution in Beijing or Singapore was worse, and he laughed and looked away. He was worried but what was worrying going to do for him? He still had to work. He couldn’t bunker himself away like the many families who were doing so when the haze reached its peak.

Thankfully, when he showed us his mask, it was the actual N95 mask. It was comforting to know that their employer had at least given them the necessary protective gears required. We enquired, “Do you know to put on the mask? Did anyone teach you how to use it?” He fumbled for a bit. If the N95 mask becomes wet or if it’s not properly worn, it wouldn’t have been able to provide adequate protection from the haze. Moreover, in their work environment, such incidents are even more likely to happen! But he didn’t know of this.

He kept offering us drinks but we said that it was OK, as we had already just eaten. Amidst the tiredness and hard work, he continues to show concern for us. It was heart-warming. Behind his worn-out face, his sincere smile and kind eyes showed a man still full of hope and earnestness.

When he brought us to the next room on the construction site and told us that these were their living quarters, I was taken aback for a while. When I had walked past the rooms just now, I had thought that these were broken bed posts, waiting to be thrown away. I had wondered to myself – why they hadn’t cleared these bed posts, so that they could renovate the place without these junk in their way.

So, you can imagine my shock when we were told that they sleep here. Most Singaporeans wouldn’t have been able to live in such an environment.

For some of the beds, they were simply pieces of wood laid across the bed frame.

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On one of the beds that I saw, there wasn’t even a wooden plank but some plastic sheets and cupboard pieces laid across the bed frame.

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You can imagine that already, the construction site is a very dusty environment. But this isn’t the place where they only work. Here is also where they live.

On one of the bed frames, a thick layer of dust has already settled. The workers live and breathe in a dusty environment 24/7. Singaporeans were already complaining about the effects of haze after a week, but these workers have to live in this environment for years, as long as they continue to live and work in such environments.

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On one bed, the worker has an ingenious idea to use a plastic sheet as his blanket.

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Someone who had a decent thin sheet of plastic sheet as a bed.

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Another worker had turned his sleeping area into a little construction doll-house, with a pink netting to protect him from the mosquitoes. Look at the dust on the bed and floor.

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And his 1940s stove.

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Another make-shift stove.

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This is also where they cook their food – dust and all – you breathe and eat dust.

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What an ingenious way to put a fan which has no legs and where you can’t affix it onto the wall.

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This is where they take their shower and do their business. When I stepped into the room, the stench was seeping out of the bathroom and I had to hold my breath. This is what they live with everyday.

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At night when it’s dark and there’s currently no fixed-up lights in the room and you need to bring your own.

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They have a balcony! (Or I would like to think…)

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A suitcase lies in the dust. When will he go home again?

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Or could he ride away into the sunset?

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Aren’t we lucky that in our offices, there are people who clean our workspace and toilets everyday?

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I don’t think most Singaporeans would fancy, or could live in such an environment. Even when I had a few times had to stay in similar conditions, at least the rooms weren’t so dusty. At least I could still breath freely.

It is sad that our government had said that they are concerned that if they were to issue stop-work orders that work would have to stop and it would affect the economy, and that people agreed. I don’t know – what do you think? I think it’s basic decency to protect people’s health. If we would be concerned enough for ourselves to want to stay indoors and hide ourselves from the haze, wouldn’t the right thing be to also protect other workers who otherwise would have to keep breathing in the haze, on top of the dust that’s already polluting their lungs?

They don’t have the fortune of being able to work in air-conditioned rooms, like we do, you know? The least we could do is to show them the respect for coming to Singapore to help build our homes and shopping malls. Otherwise, would we do it ourselves?

Sure, the economy should keep chugging. But if they hadn’t come here to build our office buildings, there would have been no economy to chug.

Sometimes we think about our money. But if we wouldn’t allow ourselves to live and work in less than, what we would consider as, humane conditions, why should we subject someone else to something that we would never do? If we were to want to shower ourselves in riches, is it decent that we prevent someone else from doing so, or pay them peanuts, believing that this should be enough for them, when we think it’s not enough for us?

Is it right that we think that just because we have a degree and that we use our brains to think ‘more’ at work, that we should deserve to be paid more, simply because we believe that we are more intelligent? Would we be able to do the work that they do? Would we be able to sweat and toil in the dust and heat? Is it not that when they work, that they would as well have to use their smarts to figure out how to do something well? Are we looking down on them and paying them what we think they deserve, not because it is true, but because we think too far highly of ourselves?

We wouldn’t even want to be the cleaners that our elderly are working in the hawker centres, food courts and toilets as.

Do not do unto others what you do not want others to do unto you. At this point, it isn’t because we should be worried about our money and which is why there should be no stop-work order. Should it be all about profits and thus we can pay people little because we don’t believe that they have any worth, as compared to us?

At this point, it’s about basic human decency. And our basic human respect for one another. It’s just that, really.

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