Singapore Haze: Discontent Rises

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Although a bustling, densely populated city-state, Singapore has nonetheless managed to maintain a reputation for having relatively clean air. Once a year, though, the island is engulfed in smog and haze, a result of forest fires caused by slash-and-burn tactics employed by plantations in Indonesia. For more than a decade now Singaporeans have endured the consequences of unethical plantations choosing the easy way out in clearing their land. Still, usually people just cough and scratch their noses, grumble a little and continue on their way.

Not this year, though, as the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) climbs higher than ever before. At one point it hit 401, classified by the National Environment Agency (NEA) as “very hazardous”.

It’s all anyone can talk about. The Twitter hashtag “#SGHaze” is constantly trending in Singapore, and social media feeds are clogged with screencaps, comments and postings from those obsessively monitoring the PSI figures. The severity of this year’s haze problem has brought to the surface a plethora of worries and criticism of the government.

Stop work orders

With the smog hitting record levels, people have been advised not to remain outdoors for long periods of time. Several companies and employers have asked their employees to work from home, or stop working completely. McDonald’s temporarily ceased its delivery service, citing health concerns for its workers.

Despite this, the government has yet to issue an official “stop work” order, and many construction workers – most of them low-paid migrant workers from Bangladesh, India or China – are still toiling away in hazardous conditions.

Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), an NGO focused on migrant workers’ rights, wrote in a statement published on that website that it “is gravely concerned that current bad haze conditions will affect the health of workers in many trades, e.g. construction, marine, sanitation, landscaping.”

Concerned about the well-being of these workers, some Singaporeans have taken it upon themselves to do whatever they can to alleviate the situation. Visiting construction sites dotted across the island, they give out drinks and lozenges. In her blog post, filmmaker Lynn Lee observed the conditions in which the workers were working: “The hot, dusty worksite is also home to some 20 workers. For Zhou and his colleagues, there’s no respite from the haze. No respite from anything. The men sleep here at night – next to bags of cement and machinery and random bits of scaffolding. There’s a thin layer of dust everywhere. Zhou says their bunks are infested with bugs. Cockroaches and rats are a fact of life. There’s just one toilet. … No wonder they don’t see the haze as a big problem. There are other things to worry about.”

Although they have not issued a “stop work” order, the Ministry of Manpower has advised employers to “minimize strenuous work outdoors” for its workers. Tan Chuan-jin, the acting Minister of Manpower, wrote on his Facebook page: “I share many of your concerns, particularly for those outdoors carrying out strenuous activities, in particular construction workers, cleaners from NEA, our Town Councils etc; and also those who spend the better part of their day outdoors. … We have been coordinating with the various Ministries on our approach. … Meanwhile, do watch out for the elderly, young and those who have respiratory conditions as they will be most vulnerable to the worsening conditions.”

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