By Vivek R
It was a rainy day in Jurong Shipyard on Chinese New Year’s eve 2016. The worksite was particularly slippery as rain water coalesced with sand to turn the working grounds into slurry. But with the company falling behind on contract schedule, the work must go on. The day looked ominous but Muthamilselvan pressed on with his work. It was on that fateful evening when Muthamilselvan’s twelve-foot ladder gave way, causing the 44-year-old South Indian national to suffer his fateful injury. He was immediately stabbed by sharp pain in his right knee and was unable to stand after his fall. Fellow workers helped him back to the company office – he limping as best as he could, with his weight partially rested on the shoulders of his fatigued colleagues – hoping to be sent from there to a doctor for treatment. Yet, for Muthamilselvan, his ordeal was just beginning. The office was one kilometre away, and unbeknownst to them there was not only no safety crew on site that day.
At the office, he received an icepack and was loaded onto the back of a pickup truck. Much to his dismay though, he was not driven to the door step of a hospital. Instead, he found himself back at his zinc-roofed dormitory, facing the six flights of stairs he would need to climb back up to his living quarters. He was instructed to rest in bed and that they would send him to a doctor if his leg did not improve.
While the rest of Singapore celebrated Chinese New Year, Muthamilselvan spent three long days bedridden. Over this period, his knee progressively swelled up to the size of a grapefruit. He tells me with a distant look on his face in his native tongue, Tamil, “I suffered a lot for three days. I could not even pass urine properly and had to pass urine into a empty soda bottle. If not for my fellow workers I might have starved.”.
When the long weekend finally came to an end, it came to the attention of his supervisors that his knee was indeed severely injured. He was sent — finally! — to National University Hospital where he received surgery for a tear of a major ligament in his knee.
On the way to hospital, he was instructed by his supervisor to give a history that he fell in his own toilet and deny that his injury was indeed at the workplace. However, a friend advised him that not telling the truth would result in him not receiving workman compensation. Muthamilselvan, already displeased with his employer’s attitude so far, went ahead and told the truth to the doctor.
Three months have passed since the injury. At this point, although his knee has recovered somewhat, he continues to receive physiotherapy. Prolonged sitting or squatting still results in pain.
Muthamilselvan is filled with anxiety. He tells me, “I’m sure boss is very angry with me. I don’t know if I will get compensation for the injury I have.
“I work hard for my company but I don’t know if my company will help me.”
He recounts the day when he was told that his boss wanted to see him at the company head office and he was taken there on a pickup truck. The driver told him to wait outside, at the company’s loading and unloading bay “for a while”. From 12 noon to 5:30pm, Muthamilselvan spent his time standing in the sweltering heat – for pain flared up each time he tried to sit on the floor. He did not have lunch that day either. At 5:30pm, he was finally called up to the office by a passing office worker who wondered what he was waiting for. Then, “My boss threw my MC [medical leave certificate] back at me,” Muthamilselvan says. “He was very angry.”
Muthamilselvan has since started a case with MOM against his employer. He is currently awaiting ongoing proceedings to assess extent of disability and to assess the degree of compensation.
The World Health Organisation states that access to healthcare is a fundamental human right. The right to health includes access to timely, acceptable, and affordable health care of appropriate quality. Unfortunately, Muthamilselvan was denied timely healthcare by his company and had to endure three days of humiliation and suffering immobilised by his injury. Transient workers who work in Singapore should not have to jump through hoops and loops to access the healthcare they need and deserve. Having worked for eleven years in Singapore, Muthamilselvan is shocked with his recent experience. We hope nobody else would have to go through the painful ordeal this worker went through.