When workers first approach TWC2 for help, an experienced volunteer would run through a checklist of questions with him. We do this because even though workers are quite able to describe the particular problem they need help with, they may not realise that there are other issues that require attention. For example, a worker who has been injured may have a lot to say about his accident and the medical care he has received (or not), but unless prompted he may forget to mention that he also has two months’ salary outstanding.
Alamgir Ejibar however, is one of those cases where after going through the checklist, we come to the view that the employer has done more or less all they were supposed to do (at least up to the date of the interview). Alamgir doesn’t realise how lucky he is compared to other workers who have suffered injuries — though understandably it is probably hard to see oneself as lucky when one is still in constant pain.
He cannot straighten his back. When he tries to stand up, he tilts slightly to the left and has to support himself with his arm propped up against a table or the back of a chair. It’s as if he cannot put all his upper body weight on his spine or hip; the arm has to do part of the job. To help relieve the discomfort, your writer invites him to sit down, but within five minutes, he says he has to stand up again. “Cannot sit down long time. Have pain coming,” he explains.
He is a shipyard worker, and on 9 February 2015, he was up on a staging tasked to manoeuvre a 16-inch pipe into position for either welding or cutting. The large steel pipe was suspended from a chain block, but with no warning, the chain block broke, swung, and hit Alamgir. He fell about 2.5 metres to the ground on which were more pieces of metal. His right shoulder, left pelvis and back were hurt.
An ambulance took him to West Point hospital where he was given some medication and 44 days’ medical leave. Many other workers with bleeding injuries have reported getting only two days’ medical leave from West Point because their bosses insisted on a short ‘MC’. To TWC2, the absence of interference by Alamgir’s employer is the first good sign in this story.
At some point — Alamgir cannot quite explain how and why — a joint decision by West Point and his employer was made to transfer him to the care of Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH). Alamgir mentions something about a needed operation, but three months after the fall, it still has not been performed. To the layman it appears to be necessary since he can’t straighten up, but there are probably other medical considerations beforehand. He is still on medical leave, the latest medical leave certificate being issued by TTSH, and has follow-up appointments to attend.
TWC2 asks about his papers. “I have [them],” he says. “West Point and Tan Tock Seng give medical paper to company, and company give me. All I keep.” Again, other workers, whose papers are seized by their employers, would also weep with envy.
“Who has been paying for the medical treatment at either hospital?” we ask.
“Company everything pay,” Alamgir says. Another box happily checked.
His last full month on the job was January 2015. Alamgir confirms that he has received his salary for that month. Check.
We next come to his medical leave wages. Many employers do not pay despite the law stating that these have to be paid at the same time as salary would normally be due. “MC money for February, how?” we ask. Paid.
“MC money for March?” Paid.
“MC money for April?” Not yet, but Alamgir says he expects to receive it on the “next chop day”. That’s the day he has to go to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to get his Special Pass extended. “Company madam have to go there too,” usually to show MOM that they still have his passport, “and she will give me,” he says with confidence.
We briefly explore what salary arrangements were like during the four years he has been working. He confirms that every month, the company provided him with a computation (“Salary paper give, and four years paper I keep”), and salaries are paid through a bank. “I have bank book, I can check.” Good.
And yet, Alamgir is wary about his employer’s intentions. It is obvious from the fact that he has chosen to move out of the company’s Penjuru Road dormitory. “My company always send back worker [to home country] after accident,” he explains. “Three man send back already. MC finish, quickly send back.”
He is concerned that he cannot control whether the doctor will extend his medical leave following each consultation. Many workers, when they are halfway to recovery, no longer enjoy medical leave even though they still have follow-up appointments and are unable to work. Should Alamgir find himself in such a situation, he fears he could be put on a flight with virtually no notice.
“If I go home like this, my family die,” he says, referring to his painful back and his doubts of getting proper treatment in Bangladesh. Even if it were available, how could he afford it? It is vitally important to him to complete his full course of treatment in Singapore, paid by the employer. To avoid being sent home prematurely, he has to put some distance between him and his employer, hence moving out.
MOM has been pressuring workers to stay on in employer accommodation. The intention is laudable — workers shouldn’t have to fork out their own money to pay rent for dirty, cramped bunks in Geylang or Little India. The reality however is that workers do not feel safe. They are acutely aware that MOM still gives employers wide latitude when to repatriate workers. And like the proverbial right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, one policy undermines the other.
MOM’s policy is that so long as a Work Injury Compensation case is not yet concluded, employers should not be repatriating workers. That’s nice in theory, but the reality as workers like Alamgir know too well, is that MOM is also very likely to accept fait accompli. When, despite the ministry’s frowning, an employer repatriates a worker even when his compensation claim is still alive, TWC2 has not observed any further action. It appears to us that the case is treated as dormant and no employer is punished for depriving a worker of his right to medical care and compensation though short-circuiting the matter.
“Three worker send back already,” Alamgir repeats. “Their case don’t know how.”
There is a trust deficit between Alamgir and his employer despite everything in our checklist being met. The root lies in the wide latitude that MOM gives to employers. The trust deficit is a perfectly expected outcome: When we see someone far more powerful than us, we’re always on our guard. In other words, the huge disparity in bargaining power and freedom of action between employer and employee that MOM has created by its policy framework is the very reason why a trust deficit exists. The Singapore government wishes for harmonious employer-employee relationships. Rebalancing that relationship is the solution, but one it has not grasped.