By Sun Hanchen; based on an interview in May 2017
The TWC2 volunteer was only following TWC2’s registration protocol, as he requested Shahjahan Mahamud to pose for a simple photo for documentation purposes. Shahjahan hesitated. It was no surprise he was nervous that evening, for the treatment he received during and after his accident was nothing short of criminal. In the thirty minutes that we spent interviewing him, he mentioned several times his fear of retribution from his employer.
Shahjahan has been in Singapore for 17 years. He describes to us his predicament in high detail, interlaced with the occasional Singlish term. One might almost be able to pass him off as a local – which, after 17 years, he might as well be. Unfortunately, a few months ago, he was only a departure hall away from being duped into leaving the country he called home for so long.
Shahjahan’s job scope entailed air conditioning installation, and the day of his accident (6 April 2017) he was working at Changi Prison. Shajahan explained patiently to us what happened, using both hand gestures and words. At eleven in the morning – or “before makan”, as he puts it – he was standing on a ladder while installing signal cables meant for the air conditioning system. The cables weighed about 8-10 kilograms in total. Midway through the installation, it seemed the cables got stuck in the ducting. Shahjahan pulled hard. It was too much force applied – the cables sprang backward forcefully, hitting him in the face, knocking him off the ladder. He landed on the ground on his lower back, overwhelmed with pain. A few minutes later, pain spread to his legs, and he couldn’t move them. “Leg like working problem,” was the way he put it.
Shahjahan’s supervisor initially told him to relax, and asked if he could stand – a rather neutral start to his problems. The Changi Prison medical team and an emergency ambulance soon arrived, and Shahjahan was taken to Changi General Hospital for treatment. “So many pain,” Shahjahan lamented. Normal painkillers had no effect on him, and stronger ones had to be used instead, at the cost of making him drowsy. He was placed on medical leave.
Over the following nights, Shahjahan slept at his boss’s house in Kaki Bukit – and that was where he heard the first indication that something was going wrong. He overheard another Bangladeshi person mention that his work permit had expired, and therefore he had to return to his hometown. Confused and fearful for his personal safety, Shahjahan — now able to walk — quickly engaged a lawyer. It was the only way he knew to protect his interests. That done, he didn’t feel he had much more to fear.
Moving to a new dorm
On 16 May 2017, he was informed that his dormitory would be shifting to Punggol, and he had to pack up for the move. With the short notice given, he had time only to pack a small bag – sans medicine. After all, if he was moving to a new dormitory, there would certainly be time later in the week to retrieve the rest of his stuff, right?
Shahjahan recounts two Tamil men arriving to take him away in the company van. That was when he asked where he was going.
Changi Airport, was the response. Shahjahan was in disbelief.
“Short pants, T-shirt, like this airport how to go?” he exclaims to me during the interview, with a tinge of anger in his voice. “MC (Medical certificate) have, appointment have, why [send back]?”
Upon reaching the airport, Shahjahan was checked in. It was clear this was a premeditated attempt, tickets having been bought far in advance. It was only at passport control, past the departure hall, that Shahjahan managed to get help from airport security. He shows us several pictures of his boarding pass. I take a look; reality hits me hard. Had he not spoken up at the checkpoint, he would be back home, medical reports pending, injury possibly never fully healing. If his English abilities were poor, if he were unable to articulate his predicament, maybe he would not be here seeking the help he so badly needs.
It was that close.
Airport security, thankfully, understood his situation. Transient Workers Count Too understands they are rather vigilant about forced repatriation cases and will assist exploited workers in getting back to landside, where they are then able to proceed to the Manpower Ministry to seek further advice. The officers spoke to Shahjahan and assisted him in speaking with his lawyer too. He was also queried about the two people who accompanied him to the airport – unfortunately, by the time he could point them out, they were already running away. Clearly, they were trying to escape from being caught for what is an obviously an illegal practice.
Still a long road ahead
Dismally, the law firm that Shahjahan had originally engaged was unable (or unwilling) to further assist him with his case, for reasons unknown. “Don’t call me like this! I cannot help you!” Shahjahan recounts, verbatim, the words shouted to him over the phone by a representative of the law firm. Time to find another legal representative.
Now that the immediate threat of repatriation was over, Shahjahan had to, by hook or crook, find shelter for himself. He found a room with bunkspace but, no longer drawing any salary, he soon found himself in arrears over rent. The landlord then forgave rent in exchange for Shahjahan cleaning the place. Shahjahan’s meals are now being provided by TWC2’s Cuff Road Programme.
Despite now at least having a roof over his head, Shahjahan’s worries are not over yet. Recovery is proving to be slow, and he worries that if he does not make a full recovery, his chances of finding future employment is slim. He still has at least four months of treatment remaining. Having been the sole breadwinner of his family, the financial burden on his relatives to provide for his wife and two school-going children back home is greatly increased.
As for his relations with his employer, he is in a quandary. The company office has asked him to go over to sign documents purportedly related to the case with MOM, his salary, or his letters of guarantee, but he does not dare go, despite still having most of his belongings, and some of his salary, there. “I English no understand,” referring to the complicated jargon presented to him in the documents. He is concerned that he may unknowingly sign something that would jeopardise his rights. “He [the boss] is gangster, someone [who may] hantam [assault] me…”
TWC2 has noticed that forced repatriations have gone down in recent years. However, as Shahjahan’s tale shows, this problem has not totally gone away. In fact, one case is one too many. Justice does not lend itself to satisfaction by mere statistical reduction. Even if one murder goes unsolved, one robber unapprehended, or, in this case, one worker muscled to the airport in order to deprive him of medical treatment and fair compensation, there is still injustice that should stir our conscience. The only comfort is that Shahjahan’s case could have turned out even worse than it did.