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By Jiang Zhi Feng, based on an interview in October 2017
After Rana Masum approached a lawyer to lodge an injury compensation claim, he found his Work Permit cancelled by his employer. Not long after, his boss wanted him to move out of his current dormitory, Westlite Dormitory at Toh Guan in Jurong East and relocate to a dormitory in South Tuas.
Rana recalls a meeting at the Ministry of Manpower where the boss was reminded by a ministry official that the employer should remain responsible for housing and food through the claim process. The boss asked the official whether it was okay to relocate Rana to a different dormitory, and the official said yes — which would be the correct answer.
Exiting the ministry, Rana asked his boss where his meals would come from if he didn’t stay at the usual dormitory. Rana was then told to travel every morning and evening to the company office in Penjuru (in the Jurong East area) to pick up his food. That’s 15 – 20km away by road. Not only would that be ridiculously time-consuming, when Rana asked about transport expenses, “Boss say, ‘he don’t care and don’t want to know’.” Even more preposterous was his boss’ impractical suggestion that Rana cycle from South Tuas to Penjuru every day to collect his food when the man does not even know how to cycle.
Rana describes his boss’ suggestions as “rubbish talking”.
In TWC2’s work, we see every day through our cases that being unreasonable pays off for employers. Exploiting unequal power relationships, any vagueness in regulations or lax enforcement can be turned into cost-saving regardless of legal responsibilities.
In the above case, by creating an impossible situation for Rana Masum’s meals, the employer has saved on housing and food costs. Rana has been cornered to ‘willingly’ give up his rights by moving out altogether to a bunkhouse in Little India. He now depends on TWC2 for free meals, a short walk away from where he stays. His boss no longer has to ‘worry’ about him.
Even seemingly sensible steps we take to recover from an injury, such as seeing a doctor and following doctor’s orders to rest and recover, can be rendered unacceptable by unreasonable employers.
On 19 December 2016, Rana Masum’s middle finger of his right hand was crushed by a heavy object. It swelled badly, with excruciating pain. However, Rana’s boss nonchalantly dismissed his injury as “no problem”. Refusing to allow him to see a doctor, his boss instructed him to “continue working”.
For the pain, his boss instead gave him “chinese medicine”, said Rana Masum, to rub on his finger. He had no idea what exactly it was, but he had a photo of it on his phone. He shows it to me. All the label said was “Zheng gu shui” (正骨水) which can be translated as “liquid for strengthening bone”.
The ointment made no difference whatsoever. His finger continued to hurt badly and his pleas to be taken to a doctor were repeatedly denied by his boss. The hurting and swollen finger made it impossible to work and affected his daily life. For instance, he describes eating with his hands as “makan time, no feeling”.
It was only a month after the accident, in mid January 2017, that the wife of his boss (Madam) allowed him to see a doctor. Unfortunately, this did not mark the end of Rana’s pain, but the start of a new set of woes.
After X-Ray and MRI scans done on or around 17 January 2017, the doctor revealed that Rana’s finger joints were severely damaged. Wanting him to rest and recover, the doctor gave Rana two days’ medical leave (“2 days’ MC”), followed by one month of light duty. Upon informing his boss of his medical excuse, he was greeted with fury from his boss, who raged (according to Rana), “I cannot pay you money if you sit down, I cannot pay you money. I do not care! Go back to Bangladesh!” However, having only started working in Singapore recently, Rana cannot afford to go back to Bangladesh. He still has outstanding debts to pay. Feeling immense pressure, Rana had no choice but to continue working.
Instead of healing, this may have aggravated the injury.
Soon after, Rana had an upcoming doctor appointment on 9 March 2017 to review his finger, but he says his boss angrily barred him from attending the appointment and disregarded his persistently painful injury as “small problem”. His review was delayed until 7 April 2017, when Madam permitted him to see the doctor at NUH. Seeing that the condition of his finger had gone from bad to worse, the doctor gave him a 14-days MC. Rana’s boss was enraged again. Even though there was no physical contact, Rana described that day’s encounter as physically intimidating. He kept quiet throughout the scolding. Rana says his boss demanded that he accept repatriation to Bangladesh.
Desperate, Rana then went to see a lawyer, who helped him lodge an injury compensation claim at the Ministry of Manpower. And then the housing and food problems came up.
From what I can see of Rana’s finger, it may never fully recover. But the boss’s problems have been solved. He has gotten rid of this worker, and unburdened himself from his responsibility to provide housing and food. Unreasonableness has paid off well.
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