By Maya Nguyen
Sixteen days after an accident, Sahajahan, 28, went to a lawyer to seek help with his case. He was then sent to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) where he was told his Work Permit had been cancelled eleven days before. No one had told him. Sahajahan was completely unaware that his overstay in Singapore for this period had put him at risk of arrest.
Employers in Singapore have complete discretion when it comes to terminating workers. Migrant workers in low-wage sectors do not have fixed contract periods. Employers can simply go online to “cut” a worker’s Work Permit at any time.
How did things come to this in Sahajahan’s case?
Sahajahan, 28, had only been in Singapore six months, hoping to earn enough to support his family in Bangladesh and recover the thousands of dollars he paid to his agent to get him this job.
On 14 January 2015, while working at Sembawang shipyard, Sahajahan, technically an employee of Prosper Engineering, fell about three metres. He was taken to a nearby clinic by the company lorry, where he was given two days’ medical leave. Still not better at the end of the two days, he asked his supervisor to take him to a doctor again. His request was flatly refused. It was only after Sahajahan offered to pay the medical expenses himself that he was allowed to go. However, while giving permission, his supervisor also asked Sahajahan to hand in his work permit – a move which, in TWC2’s experience, is often an indication that the permit is about to be cancelled.
Sahajahan had an inkling this might happen, and that it would take the form of repatriation agents coming to seize and forcefully deport him. This had happened to one of his friends.
So, after visiting a clinic in Little India on 17 January 2015, Sahajahan did not dare to return to the company’s dormitory but instead moved in with his brother, who was also working in Singapore.
On 30 January, he visited Tan Tock Seng Hospital as he wasn’t improving. A doctor examined his injury and determined that it was severe enough to warrant an additional sixteen days’ medical leave. He then went to see a lawyer, following which he went to MOM. Only to discover he had been illegal!
Fortunately, MOM recognised that he had a valid reason to continue staying on in Singapore. He was still under medical treatment, and his work injury compensation claim was pending. Sahajahan was then issued with a Special Pass.
Sahajahan’s story highlights many problems which TWC2 has brought up about the treatment of migrant workers in Singapore. The first is a deficiency of law enforcement. Although the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act stipulates clearly enough that employers must provide workers with adequate medical treatment, those slack in this duty frequently go unpunished, and certainly not for the lack of evidence.
In Sahajahan’s case, the company obviously failed to give him the treatment he needed, as seen from the fact that the doctor at Tan Tock Seng Hospital felt he needed more rest and follow-up. TWC2 has heard managers and bosses claim that their workers are “faking it” and therefore they are not wrong to refuse to send them to clinics or hospitals. But surely it is the doctors’ job, not the company’s, to make that kind of medical judgment. The manager’s refusal to bring Sahajahan to the hospital cannot be explained by anything other than indifference to workers’ well-being. It is this irresponsibility which started a chain of events which landed Sahajahan in a complicated situation regarding his immigration status. Had he been stopped by the police during those eleven days after his Work Permit was cancelled, without him being informed, he would most likely be the one bearing all the criminal consequences, not the company.
The same situation exists with employers’ duty to provide “upkeep and maintenance” for injured workers. Threats of being repatriated often create a climate of fear which makes it impossible for workers to stay in the company’s dorm. In the case in point, although the company did not explicitly threaten Sahajahan with deportation, he was well aware of the practice, as are most foreign workers. As a result, many workers flee company housing, which then means they have to fend for themselves and employers can wash their hands of their legal obligations.
Saharajan’s story also illustrates migrant workers’ vulnerability when they are tied to a particular employer who can terminate the employment at whim. Along with the outrageous placement fee they initially have to pay, this job immobility puts workers in a helpless position, at risk of getting kicked out of the country if they have the nerve to stand up for their rights. In this case, just because Saharajan dared to request further treatment (at his own expense, no less), he lost his job with a crippling debt waiting at home.