Employer demands worker return to work. Worker says he’s not well enough. Who’s right?

Posted by on July 18, 2017 in Articles, Stories

By Wahid Al Mamun, based on an interview in May 2017

Dipangka (not his real name) is of slight frame and voice. He shifts around gingerly on the plastic seat at TWC2’s free meals programme. As I endeavour to coax the story of his injury out of him, I come to learn of a mutual misunderstanding between employer and employee gone awry.

Dipangka incurred his injury on 21 March 2017 close to lunchtime. He slipped from the gangway ladder, wet from the previous night’s rain, and sustained bruising to his testes. His employers, a shipyard subcontractor, promptly took a preliminary injury report and sent him to hospital within an hour.

However, Dipangka began to feel something was amiss at the hospital. “I wait there four hours… [my] safety [supervisor] never bring lunch.” Things took a turn for the worse when, after a series of tests and painkillers, Dipangka was informed that the $40 medical fee was to be docked from his monthly wage.

As his three-day medical leave (“MC”) came to an end, Dipangka’s injury had only gotten worse. “I lie down on my bed, I cannot speak,” he tells me in Bengali, describing the pain intensity. He decided to check himself into Ng Teng Fong Hospital on the fourth day (when he was supposed to report back to work) where the doctor gave him nine more days of medical leave. Thus began a string of MCs and check-ins at emergency wards around the country as his condition persisted.

This intrigues me. What did his employer think of that? Why did he choose to visit a hospital different from the one that first treated him? Who would pay for the hospital bills, which would rack up hundreds of dollars?  I am struck by the lengths to which Dipangka went to recover from his injury and to return to work in the best of health. But why not report the matter to his company?

Dipangka laughs wryly. “What to do?” He points out again that his manager had made him pay for his initial medical fee, and this demand told him all he needed to know about the company’s attitude. As I press deeper, he describes a culture of intimidation that he encountered within the company, which dissuaded him from relying on management for medical help. He says he was always scared that he would be sent back to his native Bangladesh were he to constantly report his situation to his employers.

This turned out to be a fear founded on reality on 1 April 2017. The company manager called him to his office on the harmless pretext of discussing Dipangka’s medical condition, but instead said (according to Dipangka) that the company would send him back to Bangladesh. “He grab my shirt and throw me. Then he take my permit and keep.”

Taking back a worker’s Work Permit is often a prelude to cancellation and repatriation. Naturally, Dipangka would have been concerned that treatment for his injuries would be aborted by premature departure.

He made his way to the Ministry of Manpower. Dipangka says that a ministry official there issued a letter to his employer saying they should return to Dipangka his Work Permit or incur a $5,000 fine, and the company manager acquiesced. However, this didn’t make the situation much better. When Dipangka’s medical leave came to an end, his manager told him via text message that the company would call in the police to deport him if he failed to show up to work again.

But what the message also indicates is that Dipangka had by then left the company dormitory. From the employer’s perspective, it was a case of a worker who did not appear to be willing to return to work. By Dipangka’s own admission, he did not go back to the job. He did not feel well enough, he says. Regardless, it was hardly surprising that a little later, the Work Permit was cancelled.

Clearly, this situation is fundamentally based on a misunderstanding, on two different views of the situation. The employer felt frustrated that Dipangka got MC after extended MC, and also left the dorm. Dipangka, on his part, felt that the employer was being heartless, unreasonable and refusing to provide proper medical care. He considered his absence justified, and in fact his treatment is not over.  For example, he has an upcoming appointment with a hospital’s urology department in July.  Even now, he tells me there is tenderness in the groin. From his perspective, the employer is attempting to rush him back to work by any means possible, even before his injuries have healed.

Adding to Dipangka’s grievance is, as revealed at the end of our interview, the question of unpaid MC wages. He tells TWC2 that he has not been paid those for the months of March and April, even though it is the firm’s legal obligation to do so.

As for his future doctor appointments, one wonders where the money for these will come from. Dipangka has lost his job, yet has to think about supporting his family back home in Bangladesh. He is naturally worried. “Singapore has a lot of laws, I try follow,” he says. “I do no wrong. What can I say about what they [his employers] do?”

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
means.

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