By Isabel Chew
Aktaruzzaman is intent on telling me his story. His cellphone rings a number of times during our interview but he rejects them because it is more important that people hear his story.
On 23 July, Aktar and a co-worker were moving a 6-inch pipe weighing (by his estimate) 60 kg when his thumb got jammed between two pipes. “Suddenly cannot remove ah, my finger.” Aktar recounts the incident. “This happen already, then I hearing something sound, maybe the bone broken, but that time no pain, then I remove the gloves, then I scared.”
Aktar’s supervisor wanted to take him to the hospital. But a directive from the company came: “Don’t need bring him hospital, we take care of him — they say like that.”
Lamenting that he wasn’t a direct employee of the main contractor, but that of a subcontractor, he adds, “Actually the main con very good. My work location is Jalan Eunos, nearest maybe Changi General.” He seems to be suggesting that if it had been the main contractor calling the shots, he would have been sent to the nearest full hospital instead of a clinic. “But [my company] bring me by taxi to Singapore Sports and Orthopaedic Clinic.” It is only when Aktar refers to the clinic as an “Ali Baba” clinic that I catch the sarcasm.
“What’s an Ali Baba clinic?” The workers standing around the table laugh when I ask the question. TWC2 vice-president Alex then tells me that workers use the term “Ali Baba” whenever they wish to indicate that it’s a party they cannot trust.
Aktar explains that he never saw his medical certificate which he needed for claiming medical leave. When he confronted the doctor, he was rebuffed by an angry silence. Instead, it was his boss’ wife who told him, “Doctor give you one week light duty [so] you have to go everyday onsite. You go, I give you salary. You no go, I no pay you salary. I pay [for] you high levy so you have to go.” [See footnote 1]
At this point, Aktar whips out his cellphone to show me some gory photographs of his injury. It is then that I fully comprehend just how strongly Aktar feels about his employer and doctor belittling his health and welfare. With an injury like that, there was no way that Aktar should be working on a construction site.
Aktar describes his experience at the clinic, where the “doctor opened [my thumb] like that, never put injection, I cannot tahan [withstand the pain]. You put injection or what, but they don’t listen, don’t do anything. Then after he check already, until I cry, he stop.”
The disparaging way in which Aktar was treated led him to visit a public hospital for a second opinion, paying for his treatment out of his pocket. He recalls what the doctor told him: “You lucky come today, if never come early, your finger might have to cut or what. You see your finger all dirty, because they never wash properly, so maybe infection.”
The doctor then asked him, “which doctor do this one? Outside clinic never do properly.”
This doctor clearly saw the injury as sufficiently serious to merit medical leave. “They give first MC one week from the day. […] Second time [I saw the doctor] also one week.”
When Aktar’s employer found out that he visited a different doctor, they became antagonistic. According to Aktar, he was told that if “You go back see this doctor, you have big problem. I report to MOM, then you next time very difficult come Singapore.”
Alex explains that such employer behaviour, while wrong, is depressingly common. Employers have been known to create the impression among their workers that with merely a request from the company, the worker will be banned by the Manpower ministry from working in Singapore again. “It’s a way of instilling fear among workers and compelling obedience, however unreasonable the demands may be from management.”
But for Aktar, “I now thinking only my finger, number one, because I have family I need to work. Because Bangladesh, Singapore no same. Singapore doctor know how to do treatment. I thinking of finger.”
“I like my finger same same like that because I have family, I need to work.”
1. The issue of employers dictating to doctors how many days of medical leave to give to their workers has been in the news before. In July 2013, the Ministries of Health and Manpower circulated a bulletin to all doctors to remind them of their responsibility of care. See Doctors told to give injured workers enough leave. This was followed by a circular to companies saying the same. See Don’t dictate sick leave, employers told.