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“Are you scared?” your correspondent asked Manik, seated across the table. His operation was scheduled for Monday, December 19, 2011, just four days away. He had never had an operation, never been under general anaesthesia before.
He paused for a while, then nodded subtly.
Your correspondent tried to reassure him: “You’ll come out of it OK, in fact, better than before. The operation is down there on your leg. It’s not as if they are operating on your heart or your brain.”
“Yes I know,” he replied. “And I want the operation.” But still, like anyone of us, he could not entirely banish his fears.
He had waited a very long time for this. It was already thirteen months since the worksite accident on November 23, 2010. He was then working for a company that was a subcontractor for Singtel. It was quite a big company too, as Manik recalled, with steady contracts of work for Singapore’s main telecommunications company.
That fateful day, he was down a hole they had dug under a road, where he was working on a closure box. His drill bit broke unexpectedly, throwing him off balance and he fell off the ladder. From his layman’s description, it sounded like he might have torn a tendon or two in his right knee and the joint came loose. There was much bleeding within the knee and also from several abrasions on his elbow and arm. Needless to say, he was in excruciating pain.
He asked his boss to send him to hospital, but the boss refused. He was instead sent back to the dormitory in Jalan Papan, where 24 workers shared two rooms.
Not two weeks later, another accident happened at the worksite. There was an gas explosion and a Malay Singaporean employee died. Two other Bangladeshi workers were seriously injured, one who would stay in hospital 15 days and another for six months. The work safety authorities slapped a suspension order on the site and the remaining workers too had no work for the next six months. They languished in the dormitory alongside their injured colleagues, given just $100 per month each to buy food.
Through those six months, Manik could hardly walk and had to depend on his friends to buy what little food they could afford for him. As for medication, the supervisor had only over-the-counter pain-killers to offer. His knee gradually healed but it remained prone to sudden rotation. It was too painful to bend too. Even when Manik could finally walk, it could slip out of alignment anytime and he would be in pain again for five or six days.
Around the end of May 2011, the company was given the green light to resume work. “The boss want me to go back to work, but I still had pain,” Manik told TWC2. So he was given light duties, cleaning and tidying the site office instead. Even so, every now and then, the pain would flare up again.
“Two or three times, I tell my supervisor, please inform boss I want to go to hospital. Six months already, my leg still not OK,” Manik recalled, but each time “the boss said, ‘no need to go to hospital’.” It made him so angry, he admitted to refusing to go to work on a few days.
Then one night, Manik was in such pain, he was screaming through the night. No one else in the dormitory could sleep, not even the supervisor in the next room. So once again, the supervisor went to have a word with the boss the following morning.
This time, he came back to tell Manik that the company had now found a doctor and he could go there. It was Neecare Medical Centre.
“But the doctor there only gave me painkillers and three days’ MC,” Manik told TWC2. “MC” is commonly understood to mean ‘medical certificate’ or ‘medical leave’ in Singapore.
“My knee injured more than six months, and still have pain. Is it the doctor think it will be OK in three days?” he asked rhetorically.
The pain would continue flaring up from time to time, and Manik recalls going back to Neecare at least one more time (the document above may well be from the second or third visit, rather than the first). He was finally referred to Parkway Hospital for an X-ray, and then waited several more days for the result.
With pain continuing and no word from Parkway Hospital, Manik sought the advice of a friend, who suggested going to Alexandra Hospital. “But because I go myself, I have to pay the hospital with my own money.” It cost him $75.
Alexandra Hospital said he needed an X-ray, and made an appointment for him for roughly a week later, the interim period to be covered by a seven-day MC. He was told however that the X-ray would cost $150, money that he didn’t have.
Hoping to save $150, Manik asked his manager to chase Parkway Hospital for the X-ray results. To his surprise, “My manager then said, ‘X-ray report saw already, and no problem with your leg’.”
Not only did that sound wholly unconvincing, Manik nevertheless wanted the X-ray so he could take it to Alexandra Hospital. The Manager refused to let him have it. Very quickly, the situation escalated and the manager raised his voice and said he would send Manik back to Bangladesh without further delay. He demanded from Manik his Work Permit and other documents and locked him inside a room, from where Manik could overhear the manager telling a clerk to purchase an airticket for that every night.
“I was very angry. How can he send me back when my leg is still painful? My salary since the accident also not paid.” It was already September 2011 and Manik was owed ten months’ pay.
Nevertheless, with hindsight, it would prove his lucky day. The manager went out soon after, and a Taiwanese officer came into the office. “This guy from Taiwan, he always very nice guy and I was lucky he came to the office,” recalled Manik. The Taiwanese officer heard Manik’s appeals through the door and opened it.
“I quickly left the office, and I was lucky again to see a taxi.”
Manik jumped into the vehicle. But where would he direct the driver to go? There was no question of returning to the dormitory. If the boss sent repatriation agents after him, there’d be no escaping a second time.
And how was he going to survive the next few days with barely $50 in his pocket? What if pain flared up in his leg again?
Continued in Part 2.
TWC2 is an organization that is dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers when they are in difficulty. We are motivated by a sense of fairness and humanity, though our caseload often exceeds our