At first, it was a struggle for pint-size Madam Jenny Khng to learn to drive prime movers - massive trucks that haul trailers stacked with containers.
But the determined 46-year-old was soon able to manoeuvre tight corners without the behemoth tipping over.
Three months later in 2006, she earned her 'licence' - a newly minted Institute of Technical Education certificate.
For the past two years, she has been working as a daily rated contract worker, earning $55 for each 12-hour shift she pulls.
She also receives a $2.50 meal allowance and Central Provident Fund contributions. Each month, she takes home about $1,500, including incentive payouts.
Over the last 24 years, Madam Khng, who dropped out of school at Primary 6, has worked as a hairdresser, cleaner, supervisor, cook and driver, earning between $900 and $1,500 a month.
Her husband is an odd-job worker. They have three children - aged 16, 20 and 24 - who are still full-time students.
But much as she loves her job, she risked it all last month by complaining to NTUC's Unit for Contract and Casual Workers (UCCW) and her union about the poor contract terms of her company, which supplies drivers of prime movers.
Up to half of what she and her colleagues take home - typically $1,300 to $1,800 a month - depends on the work available and how many containers they upload or offload.
After fulfilling the minimum daily quota of moving 20 containers, they get an incentive payment of $1 to $1.50 for every additional container moved.
'It becomes quite dangerous as we are always driving faster to pick up more containers. There is an accident almost every day. Some are light injuries and others, serious,' she says.
On good days, she moves up to 40 containers. On slow days, she moves only 10, for which she is not penalised.
Three fellow workers - all male - that The Sunday Times spoke to echoed her concerns about the short lunch break and liberal docking of wages for 'errors'.
Although the lunch break is 30 minutes, much of the time goes into queueing up to park the prime movers first. Most drivers end up eating packed lunches in their truck cabins.
'Infringements' earn a host of penalties and demerit points. For instance, if workers are late for work, or take 'extra' minutes for lunch or toilet breaks, or leave engines running unsupervised, wages get docked by up to $100 in some cases.
A driver also gets scolded when he makes a mistake or is 'slow'.
'What is terrible is the constant pressure and scolding,' says a driver who has worked for three years as a contract worker.
Under the same company, drivers were once paid $60 to move the same basic load of 20 containers. Today, they are paid $55 for the same job.
'Things have changed. We know that we are doing more work now. But safety is important and we also want a fair deal,' says Madam Khng.
Fairness, she says, is the reason she is willing to go public.
'I'm dyslexic. This job has really boosted my self-esteem. I want to progress with this company rather than leave because of these terms.'
Her employers did not respond to questions from The Sunday Times.
The company that outsources its prime-moving services says that all tenders are assessed to ensure that workers receive the basic employment terms and conditions under the labour laws. It also places a premium on safety and workers are sent regularly for safety-related training courses.
The UCCW is investigating the allegations made by Madam Khng.
This article was first published in The Sunday Times on Jun 8, 2008
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