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In the minutes following his three-metre fall, with his right shin and back in pain, Hossian Ramzan was carried by two “tamil man” on the instructions of a company supervisor to a shipping container, “to rest”.
“Then they lock the door.”
It worried him, but at first he gave them the benefit of the doubt, hoping that someone would come to tend to his wounds. “I inside container half hour waiting. But nobody coming.” He concluded that he had to save himself. Picking up a small piece of pipe lying near him, he hammered on the container walls to attract attention. “I hantam very loud,” he tells your writer, using the Malay word to mean ‘to hit’. Luckily, “then shipyard safety manager hear me and come and open door.”
“What happened?” the safety manager asked. “Why are you inside?”
Hossian then explained to him that he had been hurt in a fall.
At this point in the story, it is worth noting that the shipyard safety manager is an employee of the shipyard — which Hossian names as Asia Offshore Marine — while Hossian was an employee of a a subcontractor, Express Point Engineering Pte Ltd. These details matter because employees of the shipyard or main contractor are not answerable to the subcontractor boss, so they are relatively immune to any plan that subcontractors may devise to suppress reports of accidents.
Hossian Ramzan’s story is longer than we can accommodate in 600 – 800 words, but that’s also the point of it: he did not have straightforward access to treatment. He faced a series of obstacles to overcome, revealing how difficult it is for a worker like him to get an adequate response from his employer.
The accident happened on 24 April 2014, around 10am. He says he slipped and fell about three metres and landed on some pipes. “My leg get very big,” — he gestures with his hands to indicate swelling — “and very pain. My back also pain.”
Two Express Point co-workers and several more from other subcontractors working at the same location witnessed the accident, he says, but he can’t name the other companies’ workers since he didn’t know them. The two co-workers “take me and carry me to staging area, and call supervisor.”
According the Hossian, when the supervisor came, his first words were “[If] Safety see, have many problem.” The most likely meaning would be that if the shipyard safety manager came to know of the accident, there would be problems, though it’s not clear what sort of problems or for whom. The company supervisor then instructed two other men — “tamil man”, not the two co-workers who took Hossian to the staging area — to transfer him to a container. And locked the door.
When the safety manager came after being alerted by the banging, he took photographs of Hossian’s swollen leg, then assured him that arrangements would be made to send him to hospital. Not long after, a pick-up truck came and Hossian was transferred into it. Someone asked for his Work Permit — probably to document the incident — which caused a further wait at the shipyard gate. “I crying, pain very bad,” Hossian recalls of that further half hour.
The pick-up truck would go nowhere. His company lorry then came and he was transferred to it instead. It appears that some communication occurred between the shipyard and the company, and the company probably asked to take care of its own employee. The company driver then drove the lorry with Hossian in it, not to a hospital, but to the company office.
Hossian was told that they were under instructions to wait for the boss. He was suffering from his injuries and still was not getting any medical attention. After about an hour, with no sign of the boss, he lost all patience. “I thinking, boss not want to send me to hospital.” He got up from his seat, hobbled slowly and painfully to the road outside and hailed a taxi.
“I go police station, near Lakeside that one.” It was probably the Jurong Division HQ at Corporation Road and Jurong West Avenue 1. Nearly four hours had elapsed since the accident.
After taking his report a little after 2pm, the “madam”officer at the station phoned the safety manager and received confirmation that an accident had happened. “She ask me what I need,” recalls Hossian, “and I say I need doctor.”
“So police call ambulance and take me to NUH” — National University Hospital.
The boss came to the hospital soon after. The boss spoke to the doctor; “that time, he very nice talking,” is how Hossian describes it. The boss then confronted the worker, asking him how and why he went to NUH. Hossian replied, “You never send me to hospital and I very pain. What else I do?”
NUH gave him two days’ medical leave and ordered a further ten days of ‘light duty’.
Instead of taking Hossian back to the dorm, the boss took him to the company office and said he must stay there from then on. “The tamil timekeeper also stay there with me,” overnight too in the same room. When he woke up the next morning, Hossian discovered that the SIM card had been removed from his phone while he slept.
“I ask the timekeeper who took my SIM card. He said he don’t know. But I say this is company office, and at night, nobody [else] come in.” Even though Hossian had his suspicions, his enquiry took him no further. Nevertheless, the timekeeper and his superiors would have gotten the view that Hossian would not be submissive, and from then on the door to the room he was kept in was locked and another employee posted just outside. “Sometimes, three persons standby,” Hossian explains.
He had a second phone hidden away on him; using it, he called the police again.
Officers came. “They ask me what happened,” recounts Hossian. “I say they lock me inside. I also complain my SIM card taken. I said I scared maybe boss want to send me back to Bangladesh.”
The boss tried to intervene and explain to the police officers. “Boss come and say many thing. He say my working no good, my safety no good. But police tell boss [to] stop talking,” continues Hossian. “Police then ask me what I want. I say I want to go MOM.”
At the police’s insistence, the boss directed the company driver to take Hossian to the Ministry of Manpower at Bendemeer Road.
At MOM, Hossian got a chance to speak with a Bengali translator. “Then Bangla madam very angry. She called the Safety back and scold him.” Either she or another ministry official also told the company that Hossian should be allowed back to his dorm to rest. Hossian was given an appointment with an MOM officer for another day.
On the evening of 26 April, the pain was still bad, and with his leg hurting, he couldn’t walk. He asked his company to take him to NUH again for more treatment and medication. Instead of taking him to NUH, the company driver took him to West Point Hospital, but once told that he had earlier been treated at NUH, the West Point doctor said they would not take him. West Point insisted that he should be sent to NUH. So Hossian was put into a car and sent there.
The NUH doctor “want to admit me into ward”. But the hospital also called the company and Hossian heard that the company objected. “I think because they say company refuse to pay,” so after getting two injections (painkillers?) he was taken back to the dorm again.
Either the day after or the next, Hossian was summoned to the company office from the dormitory. He was presented a document, all in English, and was asked to sign it. “I don’t know English writing, ” Hossian says, so he refused to sign. “I say, ‘If writing Bangla, I will read and sign. If English, I not sign.'”
But privately, he was scared. “I think the timekeeper want to fighting me. But I also think about my house in Bangladesh have mortgage. If I sign and [be] sent back, how to pay?” He had only been in Singapore for seven months, and had not yet worked off his “agent money”.
That night as he lay in bed, he became even more worried. His thoughts floated to an incident not long ago when another worker was forcibly sent home. He learnt about it when this friend called him all the way from Bangladesh. “I ask him ‘Why you in Bangladesh now? Why you not in Singapore?'” It was then that the friend — who had also suffered an injury — told him that “gangsters” had come to his dorm at 3am in the wee hours of the morning, seized him, and took him directly to the airport.
With this salutary example in mind, Hossian felt it was better to pack his things can get as far away from his employer as he could. “I scared, maybe this company also can call gangster to take me to airport.”
It’s been six months since the accident. Hossian is still on medical leave with follow-up appointments for treatment and physiotherapy “for my back”. As for the leg, “sometimes have no pain, sometimes have pain.” Especially at night, he says. It seems to have been quite a bad injury.
It’s a dreary existence, with no money and nothing much to do each passing day as he waits to recover. But at least, now that an injury claim has been registered and he has put some physical distance between himself and his employer, “I not so worry now [about the boss] send[ing] me back before I get better and get insurance.”
What is the larger picture that we can discern from this story? The most striking thing is that everyone outside of his employer acted professionally: the shipyard safety manager, the police, the hospitals and MOM. They seemed genuinely upset at how Hossian had been treated as any right-thinking person would. And yet, time and again, Hossian was close to being severely mistreated by the employer. The only way he could assure his continued safety was to call the police (and he was very lucky to have had a second phone on him after his first SIM card was removed) and eventually quit employer housing.
Employers like to complain that workers are quick to “run away”, using a term from the days of slave ownership, and making it sound as if foreign workers are incorrigibly irresponsible and disobedient. Hossian’s (not untypical) story shows the true dynamics that lead to such a situation.
But then a bigger question emerges. If everyone else acted professionally enough, why are such abuses still so rampant? Why are there workers who call all the way from Bangladesh to report that they had been bundled onto the first flight home? Considerable room seems to be still available to employers to act in unconscionable ways and get away with them.
What is clearly needed is a severe crackdown on any employer reported to be attempting to deny medical treatment, confining workers against their will or coercing them to sign documents they can’t understand. Acting professionally on an incidental basis is good, but not enough. Deterrence is what will make the difference.
Hossian Ramzan’s employer, Express Point Engineering Pte Ltd contacted TWc2 over this article in January 2015. TWC2 met with a company representative and heard their side of the story. See the follow-up article: “Locking into container never happened,” says employer.
TWC2 is an organization that is dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers when they are in difficulty. We are motivated by a sense of fairness and humanity, though our caseload often exceeds our