By Arjun Naidu
One June evening, at a coffee shop along Rangoon Road, construction worker Md Ebrahim Miah faced a stark choice.
“Boss very angry,” he says. “Say, ‘now I give you ten minutes, you go back [to Bangladesh] or no?’”
Though he didn’t know it at the time, his boss had already cancelled his work permit and booked a plane ticket for him to return to Bangladesh the very next day.
But Ebrahim could not simply return. He had loans to settle – $1,100 in Singapore, and, back in Bangladesh, “so many,” he says. Perhaps “ten thousand Singapore [dollars].”
And that wasn’t all. For two months, Ebrahim had been suffering from severe back pain, sometimes so painful he could not work. He didn’t feel he was well enough to return.
Ebrahim’s troubles began in April. Together with another worker, he was carrying nine or ten jointed “pillar[s]”, which he says weighed 100 kilos.
Although this was the first time he had carried that much, it was apparently normal practice at the work site, where Ebrahim had been working for seven months. Two workers would carry the load, with two others on standby. Both his immediate supervisor and boss were aware of this, despite it contravening MOM regulations.
“If two person zhun zhun carry,” Ebrahim claims, “no problem.” Zhun zhun is an expression he learned from his Chinese boss, to mean doing something with precision. “But this time he loose, so all weight on my shoulder.”
Feeling the pain, Ebrahim wanted to see a doctor. But his boss “he no want hospital”, preferring that Ebrahim see a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner. As it was late, and the next day was Labour Day, Ebrahim ended up resting in his room. He finally ended up visiting Geylang East Polyclinic the day after.
Hence began Ebrahim’s multiple visits for treatment. Ebrahim visited Geylang East Polyclinic again, Changi General Hospital twice, a TCM practitioner twice, and, when he was not on medical leave, would go to work. There he would “just sit there”, not carrying any loads.
The third time he went to Changi General Hospital, Ebrahim was warded. An MRI and X-Ray was done, but Ebrahim isn’t sure of the results. “Anything I dunno, what problem,” he says. It seems, however, that he was told an operation was needed if the pain persisted.
Ebrahim was warded for a week, and given two more weeks’ medical leave. But that was not the end of it. The very day he was discharged, his boss apparently insisted he return to work. “You no working tomorrow, go back Bangladesh,” Ebrahim was told.
That didn’t happen, since Ebrahim had a doctor’s certification for sick leave. But the very day Ebrahim’s medical leave ended, his boss returned with two of Ebrahim’s co-workers. The boss produced a letter, which he asked Ebrahim to sign. “Letter say, ‘I can now work, now I body okay,’” Ebrahim recalls.
Ebrahim hesitated. “I don’t want sign, I no doctor,” he says. He didn’t want to commit in writing, but his co-workers convinced him to. “They say, ‘Boss very angry, you must understand.’”
So he signed it and dragged himself back to work the next day (14 June 2012), only for his back pain to flare up once again. He had to rest for what was left of the day. Nor could he work the day after.
The boss then asked Ebrahim to meet him at the coffee shop the following day (16 June). At that meeting, “Boss say, ‘go back Bangladesh, [get] treatment, after that if OK I take back you,’” Ebrahim says. It was then that his boss offered to settle his Singapore loans.
Ebrahim proposed a counter. “I tell boss, ‘I go back no problem, but you must give me $10,000.” He had debts to pay back in Bangladesh, debts he had taken on to buy this job in the first place.
This was flatly refused. “Boss very angry, he left.”
Ebrahim later learnt from his former colleagues that the boss had in fact cancelled his Work Permit on 14 June itself, the day he returned to work. Unknown to him, an airticket was also purchased for his return to Bangladesh.
It doesn’t seem right. The doctor had said an operation would be necessary if pain persisted, and indeed pain was persisting. Under the law, an employer has to provide all necessary medical treatment that arises from a work injury. Sending an employee home prematurely is not only unethical, it is against the rules. So, when Ebrahim lodged a complaint at the Ministry of Manpower a few days later, the ministry saw that he had a prima facie case, and put him on a Special Pass in order for the matter to be investigated.
But it meant that Ebrahim would have to quit the company’s quarters. He is now staying with a friend, but how long will that hospitality last? When will he find himself on the streets?