“I built many HDB already.”
“How many?” I ask Rasel.
Rasel is from Bangladesh. He is currently working in a construction company, and has helped build HDB flats in Singapore for 8 years now. His bright-yellow safety helmet, worn somewhat loosely, totters about his head as we chat at the half-complete block of Built-To-Order (BTO) flats.
This is an industry dominated by men—and in Singapore’s case, most of those working directly on a construction site are migrant workers hailing from India, Bangladesh, and China. They are part of the 1.37 million that make up Singapore’s foreign workforce.
A BTO project is typically walled or fenced up, and one does not usually see the hive of activity that takes place within. Inside, I meet people with all sorts of personalities, functions, skills, and equipment, all of which are needed to ensure different objectives and quests are met. It’s an odd comparison, but it sort of feels like a Role-Playing Game (RPG) in all its might and magic, except in real life.
Warrior Class (Yellow Helmets) – General Workers
And so Rasel belongs to the character class of General Workers, indicated by his yellow helmet. These are the hardiest and most versatile of the lot, and also form the bulk of the workers. They have high sun-resistance, high HP and stamina, the ability to climb heights, and can perform both the ‘tank’ and the ‘carry’ roles. As the name suggests, they can be given all manner of rough and sundry work, including the civil, structural, mechanical aspects of the project.
Warriors can train up to be painters, operators of machinery, waterworks experts, electricians, and hot-works specialists – which involves welding, soldering, and anything to do with fire. These are all skills Rasel is experienced in, which pretty much makes him a Fire Warlock.
Archer Class (White Helmets) – Consultants, Managers, Foremen
This is the most feared class—mostly for their rank and ability to dispense with arrows. In fact, they have rather low strength and HP, and prefer to stay seated in their air-conditioned offices, and wash their boots the most frequently. Most Malaysians and Singaporeans get assigned this class, and many view their experience, if they possess any, as instrumental to the whole team.
They are not many, but are usually the first to engage and first to be targeted in any boss fight. Foremen can shout from a height of 6 storeys (10 if they possess the Battle-Cry ability) and get someone (usually a Yellow Helmet) to do their bidding, but are strangely quiet when they have to explain why they missed project deadlines.
Magician Class (Red/Brown Helmets) – Riggers, Signalmen, Banksmen
Affectionately called the ‘Papayas’ for the colour of their helmets, the riggers, signallers, and banksmen are your Merlins, Gandalfs, and Dumbledores. They have ranged abilities, and can get a lot done from a distance using their flags and hand-signals.
Any lifting operation by a crane needs a Rigger to ensure that load is fastened correctly and the slings are balanced, secure, and of the right weight. He then conveys it to a signalman or banksman, who signals and guides the crane operator in his cockpit as the load is manoeuvred safely from one place to another.
Spellcasting guide for the Novice Signalman/Banksman:
- Drawing small circles towards the sky = to hoist
- Drawing small circles towards the ground = to lower
- Clenched and unclenched hands = to take the load/weight
- Tucked elbows with skyward palms, gesturing up and down = travel to me
- Tucked elbows with skyward palms, gesturing up and down = travel from me
- One arm up in the air = stop
- Two arms up in the air = emergency stop
Support Class (Blue Helmets) – Safety Supervisors
These are the equivalents of your healing and buffing support classes, those who hand out potions, cast wards and protective barriers, i.e. the priests and medics. They wear the blue helmet to distinguish themselves, and are usually more experienced, and are likely to have been a general worker previously. Their job is critical—ensuring the safety and health of all workers, preventing accidents and minimising risk.
They can be seen checking scaffolding and access pathways, removing hazards, preventing fires, and so on. The Safety Supervisor can choose to learn the Environmental Control Officer skill branch, or upgrade their existing skills to become a Safety Coordinator.
Rogue Class (Any or No Helmets) – Certified Specialists and Operators
Any good MMORPG and any big construction project needs specialists. These are certified skilled workers who do one thing and one thing only, but do it very well. Crane operators, who sit high atop everyone else and sometimes choose not to wear their helmets, belong to this class. So do your operators of hydraulic piledrivers, excavators, forklifts, bulldozers, and diverse heavy machinery.
Regardless of which character class, theirs is a tough job. Faced with hazardous work environments, long hours in the scathing sun, low wages, and often poor living conditions far less adequate than that of the HDB flats they build, it is little wonder that many refer to the industry as encompassing the 3Ds—dirty, dangerous, and demeaning. It doesn’t help when some of the migrant workers have exorbitant agent fees that can take years to pay off, and face unwarranted discrimination from society.
While things seem to be improving in recent years, tragic workplace accidents and unjust bosses make life a continual struggle for many who come here to earn an honest living.
The next time you see someone in a yellow helmet on the street (or another colour for that matter), see if you can thank them for building this city we live in.
Labour Arty is a group of passionate individuals based in Singapore devoted to bridging communities and bringing appreciation to migrant workers through various art forms.
Their latest project aims to document the everyday common spaces and places shared by migrant workers and locals.
Have something to say about this story? Write to us at email@example.com.