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“You did Spit onto a Public Place (Drain)” — this was the awkward and legalistic way Imran’s Notice to Attend Court described his offence. How was he to know that spitting in a drain by the side of the road was wrong?
“No person shall spit any substance or expel mucus from the nose upon or onto any street or any public place,” says the law.
How many Singaporeans, needing to clear the throat, would not have known any better and done the same? In any case, isn’t it considerate of someone to take the trouble of looking for a drain, instead of just spitting anywhere?
This isn’t Imran’s (not his real name) only problem. He injured his back and head at work in March 2014, but was threatened with repatriation when he showed his boss the 16 days of medical leave issued by the doctor at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. He had hoped to rest until he was well enough to continue working, but the boss wouldn’t allow that and told him “next time you see doctor you cut MC. If not cut MC, I send [you] back [to Bangladesh]”. The threat of repatriation after an injury is often what drives injured workers to lodge a compensation claim, even though they’re initially willing to remain and work once the injury has healed. The threat, which he’d seen carried out on other workers, also compelled him to leave the company lodgings in an industrial building above the office.
Imran then sought out a lawyer to file his injury compensation claim. The employer cancelled his Work Permit, and the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) then put him on a Special Pass.
However, having felt compelled to put some distance between himself and his unreasonable boss, he then had no place to stay and no money for rent. For want of options, he made his home in the void deck and under the staircase of an HDB block near Jalan Besar. With the help of friends he has clean clothes to wear, and keeps his bedding of flattened cardboard beneath the stairs.
When one is homeless, everything one does is in a “public place”.
Meanwhile, his employer is contesting the validity of his work injury case, and while MOM tries to sort it out, MOM will not require the boss to pay his medical leave wages for his MC days. These now total over 60 days. But without medical leave wages, he has no way to find a proper place to stay.
His problems are compounded by his concern for the family, with his wife having undergone an operation for colon cancer in early November and three small children to look after. If he were still working and earning a salary, he wouldn’t need to borrow more money to for his wife to receive adequate medical treatment, but the Special Pass regulations prohibit men from working no matter how long the worker must wait for the conclusion of the case.
Out of desperation he took a casual job picking up litter at 1KM @ Paya Lebar. He was paid $40/day for the two days that he worked, but someone photographed him on the job and presented this photo to MOM. He could have been liable for a fine of up to $20,000 or imprisonment of up to two years or both, but fortunately was merely issued a warning for this offence:
“After careful consideration, we have decided to issue you a warning, instead of prosecuting you. You are hereby warned to refrain from such conduct or other criminal conduct. If you commit any offence(s) in the future, the same leniency may not be exercised and we may prosecute you.”
The fine for spitting however cannot be avoided — $150 for the first offence. Imran would be subject to jail and possibly repatriated before the resolution of the injury compensation claim if he can’t pay the fine. When this fine came to the attention of TWC2, one volunteer offered to pay the fine for him, thus sparing him further indignity and hardship. Already he’d been expelled from the company living quarters, was denied his medical leave wages and was sleeping rough under the public stairway. The anxiety of the outcome of his compensation claim, his wife’s health and the care of his three daughters continue to torment him.
The $150 fine can easily be paid and put behind him. The validity of his injury claim hinges on the employer’s challenge of that claim and the decision of the MOM; his wife’s health and his children’s future rest in the hands of Allah.
Yet, all it takes is a moment’s thought: Many of his problems — a place to stay, some privacy and peace of mind — might have been alleviated if he were allowed to continue working. With a bit of money, he might even have been able to afford the tissue paper to spit into instead of a drain.
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