By Shri Devvi Elangovan
This past holiday season signifies, for most of us, a special time, being able to spend some quality time with our family and loved ones. And along with the start of 2014, we celebrate the International Year of the Family to foster stronger family bonds. But there are some — the migrant workers — who are separated, not only for the holidays, but for years, from the ones they love the most. To make matters worse, many of them are faced with daily hardships, may it be unpaid salaries or injuries, or even the extremely crammed conditions they have to live in.
I sit down to talk to some of these workers at the Cuff Road Project to find out more about their families and the impact of being so far from home. At first, they are surprised when I ask about their families, instead of the usual questions dealing with their issues with bosses or injuries. However, as soon as they start talking about their loved ones, a smile spreads across each of their faces.
Gulam Mustufa Zakir Hossain, who is currently on a special pass, awaits a decision from MOM regarding his work injury compensation claim. Although he had injured his right shoulder back in August 2012, the doctor’s report indicates that it was his left shoulder. Thus, his company disputes that his injury was work-related. (See the story: Gulam shoulders cost of hospital’s mix-up.)
Despite this frustrating limbo, he tells me, with a grin from ear to ear, “I come very big family,” and that he is the oldest of six brothers with his mother at home (his father “no more”). Gulam also leaves behind his beloved wife and two children, who are sixteen and four. He goes on to say sadly that he misses them a great deal, as he hasn’t seen them in several years. Although he has only been in Singapore for a year and a half, Gulam previously worked in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia.
I then asked him, should he win his case, if he would return to be with his family. But his answer surprises me as he firmly says “No return,” and goes on to explain that he needs his salary to provide for his children and their education. Now that he is on a special pass, Gulam is unable to work; therefore, his maternal uncle is helping financially to provide for his children.
“When sleeping… coming pictures of my children. Nothing to do, my mind coming my wife and children,” added Gulam dolefully. When asked how often he is able to speak to them, he responds “When money… then can”, and adds that one of his brothers, who is working in Malaysia also helps him financially. So with the extra help, he tries to speak to his family at least once a week.
Children’s school fees at stake
Ahmed Ripon also comes from a large family of five brothers and two elderly parents. At first Ahmed seems hesistant and shy to sit down for an interview. But when I ask about his children, his face lights up, as he answers “One boy, one girl.” Like any other father, he has a lot of love in his eyes as he talks about his family and children.
Being the oldest, Ahmed says “all my responsibility,” as he has to provide for his family, playing the breadwinner role. On top of that, he has to finance his children’s school fees. But this is proving to be a challenge for Ahmed, since “makan also difficult.” He has been placed on special pass after injuring his back and knee, and thus, unable to work.
“Someday when money” is when Ahmed is able to speak to his wife and children. He also adds that he often thinks of his wife, and he misses them. The last time he went back to Bangladesh was two years back, and since then a lot has changed for Ahmed. He hopes to visit his family once his health is better with the compensation he is owed by his company.
Been away four years
As I approach Mohammad Aktar Hussain Kalafot Biswas (pictured in header) for an interview, I notice that unlike the others in the queue signing in for free emals at TWC2’s Cuff Road Project, he has a cheerful glimmer about him. And then I realise why: Aktar’s case had been solved and he has finally been granted his rightful compensation. (Aktar’s case was first featured in Hand smashed, needing three-hour operation, but no medical leave.) This means he is returning to home to Bangladesh at the weekend. For over a year, Aktar has been on a Special Pass, as his case of three broken fingers (requiring an operation and metal implants) moved slowly through the treatment and compensation phases.
Despite being stuck here for over a year, he continues to maintain a positive attitude about Singapore. His opinion is that “All good… Singapore good.”
Also from a very large family, Aktar longingly awaits to be reunited with his five sisters, three brothers, and his parents, whom he last saw in 2009. It is clear to me that family means everything to him. He alludes to speaking to them nearly every day: “No call…no happy”. But even after speaking to them he feels sad, especially at night.
Aktar plans to get married and start his own business when he returns to Bangladesh.
From speaking to these workers, it is clear that these men are willing to make big sacrifices including prolonged separation to support their loved ones — just like our fathers, brothers or husbands would do. They work their hardest in far-from-ideal conditions to provide for their families, and in the hope of a brighter future.