By Liang Lei, based on an interview in August 2017
Sometimes, when it comes to foreign workers, it is both worrying and terrifying to realize just how much they are at the mercy of the employers, in an environment of lax enforcement and subdued consequences. Drastic measures can be taken at any time against injured foreign workers, should they become too great a liability in the eyes of the employer. Being nearly deported with injuries from which he had not yet recovered, Sheikh Sumon would readily testify to this.
Sumon, 28, arrived in Singapore around November 2011 to work in the construction industry. He remained with the same company, Synchron Marine and Construction Pte Ltd, his work permit regularly renewed, until a debilitating injury in March 2017. From then on, his life became a series of hospital appointments.
The day that changed his life was 4 March 2017. Having ended his work shift, he was being transported back to his dormitory by company lorry in the evening. But just as he was making his way down from the rear of the vehicle, the lorry moved. He fell to the ground, fracturing bones in his right knee and right hand. The knee fracture was so serious that implants were needed to fix it.
As a result, Sumon was given a total of four months of medical leave (“MC”). For some months, all seemed as well as could be expected, with the company duly paying Sumon’s medical leave wages and hospital bills. He continued staying in the company dorm.
Things took a drastic turn in late June. The company office called Sumon on the 28th of that month to tell him that his previously-scheduled hospital appointment that day had been cancelled, without providing a reason. He took the news without questioning. These things happen. Schedules at a busy hospital change, though on hindsight, from the way he’s telling me about it now, he obviously has doubts.
The next day, he was called down to the company office, but this time was told that he was getting a transfer to a hospital in Bangladesh, with a flight arranged for the following day. His employer said that it was for his own good – he would finally get to see his parents again and recuperate properly back at home. There was also some “welfare” for him – in the form of a 20kg check-in baggage allowance — says Sumon sardonically.
Sumon was shocked at hearing about this. “Don’t believe,” he tells me flatly. “Leg not okay, cannot sit [he meant ‘squat’], cannot climb stairs, still got [hospital] appointment, how can?” However, his employer was adamant that he had to go home, and told him to get some souvenirs before packing up – a lorry would be sending him to Changi Airport soon. On hearing this, Sumon pretended to go out to buy souvenirs, but once out of company accommodation, he escaped to his friend’s house. With his belongings still in the company accommodation, and not daring to head back any time soon, he had to share clothes and necessities with his friend while looking for a way to save himself.
Sumon shows me his hospital card that lays out his physiotherapy schedule, and we estimate that a conclusion to case won’t come till early 2018. However, Sumon tells me that he may not be able to stay in Singapore for long. He only has enough money to continue living here for about a month more. It remains to be seen if Sumon will be able to find a solution to his financial challenges.
I speak with a TWC2 volunteer about this attempt at repatriation after a work accident. He tells me, “In general, we don’t hear of MOM penalizing employers for repatriation attempts, thus potentially making it a very tempting method for employers to curtail medical expenses.”
Moreover, there is the angle of housing costs. “The threat of repatriation also makes foreign workers so terrified about returning to their company accommodation,” the volunteer adds, “that they would willingly pay to seek shelter outside.” This would save money for the company despite it being the legal responsibility of the employer to provide housing. The employer then pins the blame onto the worker for “running away” when it was the employer’s behaviour and pressure tactics that compelled his departure.
When it comes to repatriation attempts, MOM should not shrug its shoulders and consider such cases individual bad episodes. They are attempts to evade liabilities and responsibilities written in law.
Around midday on 19 October 2017, someone from Sumon’s previous employer, Synchron, called TWC2. This person asked us to take down this article. TWC2 asked for more clarity as to what objection the company had to the above story. TWC2 also said we would be happy to publish a statement by the company alongside this article. The person from the company did not provide any details as to what they objected to, and rejected our offer of publishing a statement by the company.
As part of our due diligence, we immediately recalled Sheikh Sumon to our office. He arrived shortly before 3 pm. With a video camera running we asked him to recall again the key events as described in the story. He did not have the article in front of him as he answered our questions, nor did he see the article before we began filming.
As is obvious from the above video, Sumon provided answers that are consistent with the details in the story above, and with no hesitation. This, even though the video interview was two months after the interview for the text article.
The only discrepancy between the video answers and the text story is the date of the accident. In the video story, he says it was 3 March 2017. Actually, he also told our writer (in the first interview in August) that it was 3 March 2017, and the original draft of the story had an accident date of 3 March 2017. Thus, his retelling about the accident date is also consistent. It was at the edit stage of the text story that we changed the date to 4 March 2017. Why? Because on MOM’s injury claim record, the accident was dated 4 March 2017, and TWC2 felt that our text story should not contradict MOM’s official record. As for why MOM’s record of the accident date is different from Sumon’s recollection is not known.