By Elizabeth Zhou
Continued from Part 1.
That night, Homun went out for a walk to clear his head. And as it was with Kamal’s plot, someone was following him – once again, he was Indian. He recognized him as the building’s security. Would he be told he would be sent home as soon as he reported for work the next day? Frightened, Homun decided not to risk it. Not to report to work. He wanted to stay in Singapore to seek treatment here. Perhaps he could find another job here. He was the sole breadwinner of his family, and for the past seven years everyone back home had been depending on his monthly remittance. What would they do if they found out that he was to be sent home jobless and injured?
Minutes on, and around several corners, the building’s security kept a strict eye on him, following him relentlessly. Everywhere he went – even to the bathroom – the Indian man followed. His tight gaze made Homun nervous, something was bound to happen to him soon. He had to do something.
He looked for an opportunity to escape. As soon as his surveillance went into a bathroom to relief himself, Homun fled. Leaving with nothing more than his savings and his mobile phone, half running out of a place that had been home for the past few years and not looking back, he got onto the first bus that came along, heading to Little India. It would be safer there. There was a community there. And he had friends who would help him, including one with a bed he could crash for the night.
Needing to do more for his injury, Homun sought a second opinion at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH). What a difference it made. TTSH displayed a reassuring thoroughness, asking him to return for three subsequent follow-ups over three weeks. The doctor there also felt he needed more rest to recover properly, giving him a total of 19 days of medical leave (“MC”): seven days the first time, seven more days the second time, and then five days the third time. It was a far cry from the two-day MC West Point had given him under the watch of the company driver.
Under the WSHA, any injury meriting more than three day’s medical leave must be reported to the work safety authorities. TWC2 has long felt that private hospitals are too easily influenced by employers’ representatives. By keeping medical leave below this threshold, no report of safety lapse needs to be made.
Going to TTSH however, meant that he had to pay the bills out of his own pocket, though he would later learn that the law provides for reimbursement from his employer. In total, his medical expenses amounted to $390, almost half his gross monthly salary.
At the end of the 19 days of MC, Homun knew it was useless to try returning to work. There was no counting on his supervisor to be sympathetic or understanding. At 33 years of age, Homun had long bid his naiveté farewell — sympathy was overrated and calculating coldness is seen by businesses as the road to success. Injured workers should be thrown aside like used tissue. It was madness for an employer to willingly fund his treatment and recovery.
Yes, yes, the law says employers should. The reality though, as Homun knew only too well, was that these costs were now his to shoulder.
There are many threads one could take up in Homun’s story, but at heart it is about a migrant worker who, once injured, is beset by fear, worry and very limited options.
Homun’s work permit has since been cancelled, and he’s been placed by the Ministry of Manpower on a Special Pass. This pass explicitly forbids him from working. But how is he to survive without income? Homun may have no choice but to turn to work in the shadow economy, which will dispossess him of his rights and protection of law.
Not that the law, for all its self-importance, has done much for him so far.
All his fears, worries and negative consequences were supposed to have been addressed by Workplace Safety and Health Act (WSHA) and the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA). These laws mandate that employers take responsibility for the medical care and upkeep of a foreign worker in the event of an injury. However, Homun’s story is a spotlight on the ineffectiveness of the letter of the law. The reality is that the law’s pretense is quickly undone by a pervasive climate of fear, grounded in the quotidian experience of a low-wage foreign worker: friends with broken bones disappearing in the night, uncommunicative company doctors who don’t even ask their patients what happened, company drivers issuing decisions about medical leave, dorm security tailing him as if he were a terrorist.