Vallathan Kowthaman is going home end January 2014. He has no reason to smile as broadly as he does in the photo above, being about $6,000 poorer than when we arrived for his second job in March 2013. But he gives us a big smile because TWC2 has been his lifeline since he was injured, providing him two meals a day for the last seven months.
He has another reason to smile: this 26-year-old is going home to get married. The bride will be a distant cousin, aged 21, whom he had met before coming to Singapore, and with whom he had spoken regularly to while here.
“Will you be coming back to Singapore to work after getting married?” your writer asks.
Speaking in Tamil, he says no. He wants to be with his new family; he’s also looking forward to having two kids.
In any case, Singapore hasn’t been good to him. He first came in 2011 under a two-year work permit in the marine sector. “But boss cheat me,” he says, paying him only $400 or $500 a month when he had been promised more. He had paid about $5,000 in agent’s fees to get that job, and only by saving every cent he could of his unexpectedly low salary through those two years did he manage to recover the investment. “Just about get back,” he says of those harrowing months.
Then he paid another $4,000 to get a new job with Jurong Engineering — a big firm. But on 27 April 2013, within a month of starting work, he injured his little finger on his left hand, needing an operation. Three days later, there was some acrimony between him and his superiors, and he was out of a job. He had to quit the company dormitory too.
Your writer was curious what exactly happened, but decided not to ruin the happy mood by asking him to rake over the past. It was likely, in any case, to be an all-too-familiar story, told again and again by thousands of workers post-injury. Many other stories on this site have described how supervisors and managers penalise workers for accidents even when it’s not the latters’ fault.
Over the following eight months, Kowtham borrowed over $2,000 to rent a crummy, flea-infested bunk bed in Little India, waiting out the treatment and compensation phase. Our extremely flawed state policies leave men like him totally in the lurch through the prolonged wait: post-injury, Kowtham has been on a Special Pass issued by the Ministry of Manpower that explicitly forbade him from working, yet Singapore provides no social safety net for jobless but legal migrant workers.
He’s lucky in a way. The injury isn’t severe and does not seem to have much affected his left hand. It won’t hinder him from working and supporting his family. But it also means that the compensation he is getting is minimal — just one point on the injury scale, or about $1,000 in monetary terms. This whole amount is likely to be swallowed up in lawyer’s fees, leaving him with nothing. (He needn’t have hired a lawyer in the first place).
“So what are you going to do when you get home?” your writer asks.
He was a fisherman before coming to Singapore, so he knows the trade. In fact he had been working in this line since leaving school after nine years of education. His father died when he was still an infant and his strong back and arms were needed to help support the family (mother and sister).
Home is the port city and former French colony, Pondicherry. “Oh, it’s a beautiful place,” says TWC2 volunteer Christine Pelly, sounding almost envious of Kowtham.
He’s going to have to work as crew for a while — pays only 10,000 Rupees (about S$200) in a good month, he says — and there will be about two months in a year, November and December mostly, when the weather is so bad, they hardly go out to sea. The salary isn’t fixed either; “it depends on the catch,” he explains in Tamil.
Kowtham hopes to be able to save at least 30,000 rupees within a year, so he can get his own boat. A boat costs about 300,000 rupees (about S$6,200), but he should be able to get a bank loan, at 5 – 10% interest, to buy one. Since the bank deducts the interest upfront, he’ll need that 30,000 rupees in cash to pay the advance interest. Then he’ll need to hire three or four men to help him man the boat.
Kowtham is looking forward to a new life. We at TWC2 wish him the best. We hope India will treat him better than Singapore has.