On the morning of 29 September 2012 as he was about to start work, Dulal Abdul Hai found a crowd gathering to watch a fight between an Indian lorry driver and a Bangladeshi welder. Without pausing to consider the reason for the fight, he made the risky decision to intervene and pull the two men apart. Dulal moved in just as one man was throwing a punch; the fist landed on Dulal’s face rather than the intended target. Dulal persisted and managed to separate the two men, ending up with a bloody lip himself.
All three men were taken to the security office to discuss the incident, and all agreed not to make a police report, fearing that this could cause trouble for them. The other two men were suspended from work for two days, and Dulal was told to go back to work after signing a paper stating that he was a witness to the fight and had intervened to break the other two apart. He visited the doctor about the lip and was given medical leave for a day.
The following day, Dulal was inexplicably called back to the office and given the choice of paying a $500 fine or accepting a seven-day suspension from work. Despite his innocence, he took the suspension because it would mean less money lost: $500 is equivalent to fifteen days of work with overtime. He decided to stay away from work from 1 – 7 October.
Returning to the job on 8 October 2012, he met with another stroke of bad luck. When climbing up a monkey ladder, a bolt on the ladder caught his pants causing him to fall and injure his right leg and back. He was taken to the safety office where he asked the safety manager to make a report. By the time he was taken to the Acumed clinic, the clinic had closed for the night and so he had no immediate treatment. His brother took him to a doctor the next day, but when he returned from the clinic with one day’s medical leave, ‘gangsters’ (as strong-armed repatriation men are referred to by foreign workers) were waiting to take him to the airport. When Dulal told the airport police about his injury and the medical certificate, they prevented him from boarding the plane and told him to approach MOM about the injury. He lodged his injury compensation claim the following day.
He may have been keen to lodge the injury claim not so much for the insurance money, but to ensure he received medical treatment and to avoid being rough-handled and summarily repatriated. Repatriation is often the company’s immediate and effective response to an accident as the company avoids the cost of treatment, keeps a clean safety record and the insurance company saves paying the compensation. Lodging a formal complaint at MOM makes an employer think twice before resorting to such tactics, and also provides a worker with documentation that he can show to the airport police that his case is not yet resolved.
Around April 2013, other workers in the same company became increasingly unhappy over salary issues, alleging chronic underpayment. (They would later be lodging claims en masse.) They consulted with Dulal about how to go about making their salary claim, perhaps seeing him as ‘experienced’ since he had made an injury claim at MOM earlier. His involvement with the group might have caused the company to be irritated with him. One can speculate too that perhaps as a way to discredit him, the company then disputed that his injury occurred the way he said it did at the workplace.
With two conflicting versions of events — Dulal saying he fell off a ladder at the workplace, the company saying he did not — it fell to MOM to figure it out. Dulal was asked to present himself for a polygraph test.
Continued in Part 2: Dulal put to lie-detector test
What this story shows is that MOM, by being lenient on employers who resort to repatriation agents, creates a huge workload for itself. Here was a worker who desperately needed to have some defence against unilateral repatriation. The only means he knew of was to lodge a work injury report, though from the fact that he was given just a one-day MC, it probably wasn’t a serious injury. Nonetheless, he might have had issues of medical expenses not reimbursed or unpaid salaries, and it is not right to just seize him and pack him off.
Once a report is lodged, it sets in train much paperwork at MOM and hospitals. This then gets compounded when an employer disputes that the accident happened at the workplace.
All this could have been avoided if MOM has an admonitory record of penalising companies for using repatriation agents, or attempting to seize and deport workers. Better yet, MOM should have an effective whistle-blower complaints window so that the issue of untimely repatriation is directly addressed, without workers having to utilise other tools.
Unfortunately, as Vincent Wijeysingha, TWC2’s former Executive Director, mentioned at a public forum on 23 December 2013, he once had a meeting with a senior civil servant at MOM during which the subject of repatriation companies came up, and recalled that “She said, ‘they provide a useful service’.” (Link: http://theindependent.sg/maruah-concerned-over-lack-of-justice-and-fairness-for-migrant-workers/)