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By Li Zi Xin
Hossain Billal, 33, has been without work and income for almost a year. He has a wife and two children to support. He may never fully recover from his workplace injury and may never be able to do heavy work again. There is nothing dramatic about his story, only a slow churn. Because there’s nothing dramatic, it’s a story that is easy to ignore. Yet, it’s a commonplace one, illustrating the risk that foreign workers take when they come to Singapore to work as manual labourers, starting off healthy and full of hope, ending up broken.
Hossain sustained a back injury on 28 May 2015, rendering him unable to work. For a while, he was on medical leave, but after he lodged a compensation claim, his employer cancelled his work permit and he was put on a Special Pass by the Ministry of Manpower. The Special Pass allows him to stay on legally in Singapore while the claim is pending, but does not allow him to work. Being without work is devastating for a foreign worker, as money is the sole reason why they chose to come to far-away Singapore in the first place. Even though he is partially recovered, and could perhaps take on light work, he isn’t allowed to by the System. Without income, it means depleting savings, which has gone on for a worryingly long time.
For eight years, life seemed to be going well. He began as a regular employee at Nam Lee Pressed Metal, eventually getting promoted to supervisor due to good performance. It was when Hossain was helping to move a heavy load of metal due to a shortage of labour that he hurt his back.
Hossain has been going for physiotherapy twice a month and has been taking his prescribed medication faithfully. His employer has been supportive and is covering the cost of his treatment. However, even after such a long time, Hossain has yet to recover from his back pain, and worse, now the pain is spreading down to his legs. With no sign of recovery, Hossain’s anxiety has only grown with time.
Medical science isn’t so advanced that it can cure everything.
This situation has caused Hossain a lot of frustration and has put him in a difficult spot with much uncertainty. No one can say how long it will take for him to recover, if at all. It isn’t even clear what the next best step should be. Should Hossain continue staying in Singapore to continue with his treatment, but remain without income and away from his family? Or should he go back to Bangladesh to reunite with his family, seek out treatment there (which he will have to pay for himself), and try to find some way of earning money there?
Without any work to occupy him in the day, Hossain’s thoughts frequently go back to his family, whom he misses dearly. Hossain is disappointed by the lack of improvement in his condition and wants to stop his treatment in Singapore and return to Bangladesh. “I want to go back home”, says Hossain. “My family also ask me to go home.” When asked about what plans he has in Bangladesh, Hossain says he will probably try to set up a small shop selling goods, something that will not be taxing on him physically. “I cannot carry heavy things any more”, Hossain says. His wife should be able to help out at the shop too.
There are thousands of similar Hossains in TWC2’s case files, their lives permanently changed for the worse, their savings depleted from the long jobless stay in Singapore while waiting for case resolution. They come to the Lion City to work. In the end though, despite supportive employers and caring doctors, they feel they’ve been chewed up in a lion’s den.
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