Factories Ordinance, 1958

Singapore Infopedia

by Singapore. National Library Board


The Factories Ordinance, 1958 (Ord. 41 of 1958), was a piece of legislation that sought to set minimum standards for the health, safety and welfare of workers in factories.1 In 1960, factory workers numbered about 120,000 and made up one-quarter of Singapore’s total labour force.2 This ordinance was introduced when Singapore was on the threshold of industrialising its economy.3 It was modelled after the Factories Act, 1937 and 1948, of the United Kingdom.4 Similar to British labour laws, the ordinance also closely followed the recommendations set by the International Labour Organisation Convention but with changes to suit factory conditions in Singapore.5 When it became law on 1 June 1960, the Factories Ordinance repealed two earlier laws, the Machinery Ordinance and the Protection of Workers Ordinance.

Setting higher health, safety and welfare standards
Then Chief Minister and Minister for Labour and Welfare Lim Yew Hock introduced the Factories Ordinance in the Legislative Assembly on 22 April 1958.6 The proposed bill was welcomed by the press and in some quarters.7 Indeed, when then Minister for Health A. J. Braga delivered the second reading of the bill on 11 June 1958, he pointed out that the proposed legislation would bring factory working conditions in Singapore up to par with international standards by replacing the Machinery Ordinance and the Protection of Workers Ordinance enacted in the 1920s.8

New technology outdated these earlier ordinances. For instance, the Machinery Ordinance did not have provisions regarding electric or portable machinery that were already widely in use at the time. While the Protection of Workers Ordinance laid out standards to protect workers against disease and workplace accidents, it was never fully implemented.9

Concerns of small and big businesses
Although there was support both in the Legislative Assembly and among members of the public, many businesses, and in particular smaller businesses, were concerned about the increased costs that would be brought on by the proposed legislation. For example, the provision of separate sanitation facilities for different genders required under the proposed legislation would have raised business costs by an estimated few thousand dollars.10 There was the suggestion that one way to exempt small businesses from such increased costs would be to define “factory” as a place employing more than 12 workers under the proposed legislation.11

Select committee to get feedback
As part of the consultation process, a select committee was set up to look into public representations on the proposed legislation.12 The majority of private individuals questioned the wisdom of applying Western industrial safety standards to local factories and raised concerns over the possible difficulties that the proposed bill would impose on smaller businesses.13 Bigger businesses were wary of the additional costs arising from the new ordinance and wanted a redefinition of “factory” as premises with at least 20 workers from the proposed definition of six.14

Reaching a compromise
Taking into account the feedback, the select committee in its report recommended several changes to the proposed bill. One recommendation was to define a factory as a premise with more than 10 workers.15 The amended Factories Bill was then read a third time and passed on 8 October 1958.16

The coming into force of the Factories Ordinance was delayed when the Legislative Assembly was dissolved on 31 March 1959 ahead of the general election in May.17 After the election, the new People’s Action Party (PAP) government moved with a sense of urgency to push through various new bills in the Legislative Assembly. One of these bills sought to amend the as yet unimplemented Factories Ordinance to allow for premises that employed fewer than 10 people to be covered under it.18

In moving for the Factories (Amendment) Bill to be passed, K. M. Byrne, then Minister for Labour and Law, explained that the Factories Ordinance as it then stood did not allow for legal action to be taken against a small factory employing fewer than 10 workers even when dangerous machinery was being operated within its premises. The proposed bill sought to address this oversight by amending the ordinance so that it covered premises that employed fewer than 10 persons and which operated machinery or used flammable or noxious substances.19 The bill was successfully passed on 13 August 1959 and it became known as the Factories (Amendment) Ordinance, 1959.20 The Factories Ordinance and the Factories (Amendment) Ordinance both came into force on 1 June 1960.21

Effectiveness of the Ordinance
The Factories Ordinance was administered by the factory inspectorate. In the first six months after the Factories Ordinance became law, the inspectorate checked 882 factorie.22 The number of inspections rose over the years but despite that, there was a rise in the number of industrial accidents. From 1960 to 1965, industrial accidents rose from 85 cases to 529 cases. Most of the accidents occurred in the building and construction sector.23

Attempts to bring the number of industrial accidents down ranged from worker and public education to more stringent enforcement.24 Despite these efforts, the number of industrial accidents continued to rise. By the end of 1970, there were a total of 1,217 cases,25 highlighting the ineffectiveness of the Factories Ordinance to safeguard the welfare of industrial workers. In 1973, the Factories Ordinance, 1958, was replaced with the Factories Act, 1973. The new legislation set higher health, safety, and welfare standards for factory workers. It also contained provisions to allow authorities to combat industrial pollution.26

1. Factories Ordinance 1958, Ord. 41 of 1958, 1958 Supplement to the Laws of the State of Singapore, 187–90. (Call no. RCLOS 348.5957 SIN–[HWE)
2. Legislative Assembly, Singapore, Second Reading of the Factories Bill, vol. 6 of Debates: Official Report, 11 June 1958, col. 352. (Call no. RCLOS 328.5957 SIN)
3. Legislative Assembly, Singapore, Third Reading of the Factories Bill, vol. 7 of Debates: Official Report, 8 October 1958, col. 856. (Call no. RCLOS 328.5957 SIN)
4. Leila bte Abdul Rahman, Safety Provisions for the Worker in Singapore (Singapore: Malayan Law Journal, 1979). (Call no. RSING 344.59570465 LEI)
5. Labour Department, Singapore, Annual Report 1958 (Singapore: Govt. Printers, 1959), 135. (Call no. RCLOS 331 SIN)
6. Legislative Assembly, Singapore, First Reading of the Factories Bill, vol. 6 of Debates: Official Report, 22 April 1958, col. 56. (Call no. RCLOS 328.5957 SIN)
7. “Employers in Favour of ‘Safety’ Plan,” Singapore Free Press, 14 May 1958, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Legislative Assembly, Singapore, Second Reading of the Factories Bill, col. 352.
9. Legislative Assembly, Singapore, Second Reading of the Factories Bill, col. 352.
10. Legislative Assembly, Singapore, Second Reading of the Factories Bill, cols. 354–6.
11. Legislative Assembly, Singapore, Second Reading of the Factories Bill, col. 355.
12. “Speak Up on These Bills – Call to Public,” Singapore Free Press, 27 June 1958, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Select Committee on the Factories Bill, Report of the Select Committee on the Factories Bill, Parl. 4 of 1958, presented to Parliament on 28 December 1972, 5–8. (Call no. RCLOS 344.59570465 SIN)
14. Select Committee on the Factories Bill, Report of the Select Committee on the Factories Bill, 8–9, 13.
15. Select Committee on the Factories Bill, Report of the Select Committee on the Factories Bill, 27, 89.
16. Legislative Assembly, Singapore, Third Reading of the Factories Bill, col. 856.
17. “The Assembly Is Dissolved,” Straits Times, 1 April 1959, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “Four Bills With Urgent Tags to Be Moved,” Straits Times, 16 July 1959, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Legislative Assembly, Singapore, Considered in Committee, Reported and Third Reading of the Factories (Amendment) Bill, vol. 11 of Debates: Official Report, 13 August 1959, cols. 387–90. (Call no. RCLOS 328.5957 SIN)
20. Factories Ordinance 1959, Ord. 49 of 1959, 1959 Supplement to the Laws of the State of Singapore, 280. (Call no. RCLOS 348.5957 SIN–[HWE)
21. Factories (Amendment) Ordinance 1958, Sp.S 94/1960 and 95/1960, Government Gazette. Subsidiary Legislation Supplement, 8 April 1960, 400. (Call no. RSING 348.5957 SGGSLS)
22. Labour Department, Singapore, Annual Report 1960 (Singapore: Govt. Printers, 1961), 20. (Call no. RCLOS 331 SIN)
23. Labour Department, Singapore, Annual Report 1960, 20; Ministry of Labour, Singapore, Annual Report 1965 (Singapore: Govt. Printers, 1961), 46. (Call no. RCLOS 331 SIN)
24. Ministry of Labour, Singapore, Annual Report 1965, 47–48.
25. Parliament of Singapore, Second Reading of the Factories Bill, vol. 31 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 28 March 1972, cols. 1291–8. (Call no. RCLOS 328.5957 SIN)
26. Ministry of Labour, Singapore, Annual Report 1973 (Singapore: Govt. Printers, 1974), 22. (Call no. RCLOS 331 SIN)

The information in this article is valid as of 21 October 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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