By Samantha Ege
His name is Shohag, a young graduate from Bangladesh with a Bachelor of Business Studies. He sits opposite me and spreads three cards on the table between us. ‘Building Construction Supervisor’, ‘Work-at-Height’, ‘Lifting Supervisor’ they read, giving me a glimpse of the post-degree path Shohag has taken here, in Singapore. But the pinkish streak of a scar that runs two inches down the centre of his left middle finger is perhaps the most symbolic of all that he shows me.
Shohag came to Singapore in October 2012 under the employment of a construction company, Smatra Engineering Pte Ltd. After a year, his contract was renewed and extended to a two-year contract. His employer would customarily contract him out to different sites. Almost a year into the new contract, he was supplied to a company working at the National Gallery site on St Andrew’s Road. He was assigned to fit ceiling boards. While carrying the boards, Shohag noticed a shard of glass protruding from his finger. He recalls, ‘no blood, no pain.’ He pulled out the glass from his finger and upon telling Masud, the site’s foreman, of his accident, was brushed aside with, ‘no problem.’ He was told to go back to work, which he did.
‘Two days later, something pain,’ Shohag tells me – he felt a sharp, searing sensation in his finger and this time informed Guru, a foreman of his official employer, Smatra. Shohag explains, ‘Guru give medical paper and I do company medical.’ Shohag received antibiotics from a small clinic at Marine Parade and was given a Medical Leave Certificate (MC) for one day.
‘Next day,’ he recounts, ‘finger swollen, bigger. But after, I got to work.’ He continued to work despite the fact that the condition of his finger had worsened. He risked being penalised $30 per day if he absented himself even though his basic salary was merely $21 per day. With continuing pain, he had no choice but to contact Guru again, who provided him with a second referral.
Shohag found himself in the consulting room of the same doctor he had seen a few days earlier. ‘Doctor, can you help me?’ he pleaded. Seeing his worsening condition, the doctor could not treat him. Instead, he provided a letter referring Shohag to Singapore General Hospital.
Shohag called Guru to tell him that he had to be treated at a hospital. Guru told Shohag he would pick him up the next day at nine o’clock in the morning and take him there. The next morning, Shohag waited as planned. Fifteen minutes passed. He waited. Half an hour passed. There was no sign of Guru. ‘He coming ten o’clock,’ Shohag says with an air of exasperation as he relives the frustration of that morning.
However, Guru did not take Shohag to the hospital when he arrived. Instead they talked — for two hours — during which Guru revealed there was a condition attached to providing him any treatment. Guru would only take Shohag to the hospital if he were to agree that the accident happened at home, not at work. This was something Shohag could not and would not agree to. Instead, he called Masud’s manager. Shohag recalls the conversation, ‘I speak to him. He [the manager] says, “No problem, no problem. I take responsibility”.’ Guru’s ‘deal’ fell through and several hours later he did, in fact, take Shohag to the hospital. With the pain proving too much, Shohag cried all the way there.
Shohag was admitted to Changi General Hospital for three nights. He had two operations and was given an MC for twenty-five days. His company gave him fourteen days of paid medical leave. He had a follow-up examination scheduled for November. As far as Shohag was concerned, the back and forth, and ups and downs of the past month were now over.
It was a Friday evening, late October, the day after Shohag’s medical leave had ended, that he found out his work permit had been cancelled by his employer. He vividly remembers the moment in which he was informed: ‘Guru take some paper and say, “Sign. Here’s your passport. Tomorrow, Saturday, you fly.” The words hurriedly tumble out of Shohag as the expression of then-felt disbelief re-surfaces on his face, widening his eyes and raising his brows. The paper that Guru had instructed Shohag to sign was a payment voucher that acknowledged receipt of the fourteen days paid leave and his ‘savings money’. Savings money refers to the practice of employers keeping back a certain amount of the employee’s salary ($50 in this instance) and returning it (or not, in other instances) upon the employee’s repatriation. This practice is not legal.
So, what was the significance of waiting until Friday evening to break this news to Shohag? Well, there was nothing Shohag could immediately do about it. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) closed on weekends, and this was not news to Guru. Shohag decided to go to the police, but was told that this was a not a police matter and fell under the jurisdiction of MOM. The police did, however, give Shohag contact information for the Migrant Worker Centre (MWC); and so, when Saturday arrived, Shohag did not board the plane. He went to MWC where a computer record was made of his case and an email was sent to MOM informing them of his situation.
As soon as Monday came around, Shohag went to MOM where he was granted a Special Pass. This enables him to stay in Singapore, but does not permit him to work. He was advised to go back and stay at the company quarters, but he refused. He explains in a guarded sort of way, ‘I scared Guru. He not like the Bangla men.’ Shohag knew that the company would cut off any financial support if he chose to stay outside of their quarters, but it would still be safer to keep a distance from Guru. He told MOM that he would stay with a relative.
Shohag’s journey is jagged, like his scar. Neither allow him to forget the hours and dates and locations and conversations since the accident. They jut out in his mind; he remembers each moment with precision. He tells me more of his past: his father, his mother, his three brothers and his two sisters – the older siblings are at university, the younger ones still in school. He gathers his cards from the table, unsure of his future.
A recent check with MOM’s online service shows that MOM has ruled Shohag’s injury to be not work-related. It is hardly a surprise. At the earlier interview that Samantha Ege had with Shohag, he had mentioned that the employer was disputing his account of the incident.
Specifically, MOM’s conclusion was that: “You are not eligible to claim compensation under the Work Injury Compensation Act as your were not injured in a work-related accident.”
Many workers find themselves in similar situations. Employers succeed in denying work injuries when they flatly deny it, and MOM requires the worker to have either witnesses or documentary proof to reverse the employer’s denial. Witnesses are hard to come by when they fear for their jobs. Documentary proof is a tall order — who would be recording details of an accident as it happened?
Fortunately, Shohag’s finger seemed to have healed nicely save for a scar. It might well be that with no permanent disability he would not have been entitled to any compensation anyway, but it is still a smirch on his integrity to deny his account that it happened at work.