Shankar (L) and Billal (R)
By Alex, based on an interview in September 2019
It is Shankar who introduces Billal to us. Shankar has been with TWC2 for 23 months over a bad leg injury which happily seems to have healed very well. Now he’s an old hand at our Cuff Road Project, telling newer arrivals which senior volunteer they can talk to to get some advice.
“My friend, Billal,” Shankar begins his introduction. “He can talk to you?”
“Sure, of course. Please sit.” I indicate two chairs to my right.
Hossain Mohammad Billal has an anxious look on his face. The perspiration on his brow makes him look even more worried, though it is more likely because of the warm humid air. He begins: “Today, Boss say he not accept my injury.” And he leaves it hanging.
Like many foreign workers facing a difficult situation, he is so lost, he can’t even compose a question. He doesn’t know what to ask for. All he can do is to state the source of his anxiety and hope someone at TWC2 can make sense of it.
In order for us to do that, we need a lot more information. Background. Context. Source. And so I begin to ask a series of detailed questions. After coping with the first few, Billal turns to Shankar to say something in Bengali. From Shankar’s slightly exasperated tone when replying, I can guess what that was about. Billal must be asking Shankar why I am drilling him about tiny facts when what he needs is an emphatic assurance that we at TWC2 will solve all his problems for him. I can guess Shankar’s response to Billal: Just answer the questions.
And so we go back to the “tiny details”.
On 27 May 2019, Billal was tasked by his work supervisor at his Ang Mo Kio worksite to move a set of metal formwork from one location to another. The pieces of metal were quite lengthy, almost the height of a man when stood upright, as they were at the time. Billal moved a number of pieces at a time by carrying them on his inclined back. At 4:30pm during one of the moves, he fell and the metal pieces crashed hard on him.
“Nobody there,” he says in answer to my question whether there were any witnesses to the actual incident. “I cry five minutes.”
Soon, two other workers, both employees of another subcontractor, came rushing to his aid. One was an Indian worker and the other was from China.
An ambulance was called and he was taken to Farrer Park Hospital. Billal says the ambulance reached the hospital around 6pm. He was conscious throughout but cannot recall the name on the ambulance’s livery. The safety supervisor either rode in the ambulance or followed along, to the hospital.
I ask him whether he signed his time sheet on the morning of 27 May. He says he did.
With these details pinned down, I advise Billal that he has a strong case. Through the notation on the time sheet, he can prove that he was at work that day and he can demonstrate that the incident happened at the worksite since an ambulance was called to it, and during working hours too.
He does not immediately show any sign of relief. His face remains as tense as at the start of the conversation.
I now ask about the source of the information that “Boss not accept injury”. It turns out that just a few hours earlier, there was a meeting at Billal’s lawyer’s office. Billal was there though he didn’t fully understand all that was said in the room; his English is weak. He did however understand from his lawyer that the boss’ parting shot was that he (the boss) was going to object to this being classified as a work-related injury. The lawyer added something about the case now needing to go to the Labour Court. This was enough to throw Billal into worry and confusion, his hopes of compensation in jeopardy.
“Boss visit me in hospital,” Billal adds, “so why he now say no accept injury?”
This statement is key. It provides us a glimpse of the fog a foreign worker like Billal is in when faced with a situation like this.
Workers like Billal do not understand the distinction between an injury and a work-related injury. He finds it incomprehensible that his boss can visit him in hospital, and clearly see that he was injured, and today say “not accept”. How can anyone wake up early, watch a sunrise, and then deny that the sun ever rose that morning?
We have to patiently explain to workers the fine distinction in law, and make sure they understand that it is entirely possible for an employer to concede that his employee was injured without conceding that it was a work-related incident. Workers need to understand that their counter-arguments shouldn’t be whether or not they were injured, but whether the incidents occurred while they were at work.
I explain this to Billal and repeat to him that he has a strong case given the timeline and the facts.
And yet, his anxiety does not evaporate.
And that’s because there’s something underlying that is even more invisible to us than the blurriness between injury and work-related injury. All that we have said so far — about facts, about logical deduction from the fact that an ambulance was called to the workplace — is only meaningful if one has faith in rational argumentation and institutional processes; faith that facts and logic will triumph. If that’s how one sees the world then one will be reassured that one’s chances of prevailing are good. But that’s not how many people from the subcontinent see the world. To them, it’s a rougher place, where rules and institutional processes are a joke and actors are driven by selfish interests riding roughshod over others through brute application of power.
Bosses are powerful people. If the boss says he will not accept that the incident was work-related, then to defeat him, one must look for countervailing power. The law of the jungle. It is effete and ineffectual to rely on rational argument. As for impartial processes, the concept hardly figures on a worker’s radar. And understandably so too, for that’s not a typical worker’s life experience back in his home country before coming to Singapore.
Billal was probably hoping, when he sat down, that he would hear from us at TWC2 a simple but assuring statement. Something along the lines of “Don’t worry, we will take care of it. We are more powerful than your boss-man.”
He is not getting that assurance. Instead he is getting a crash course in law, bureaucratic processes and a whole new way of thinking. It will take a while for all this to sink in. But we can see that he’s heading in the right direction because towards the end of our consultation he volunteers additional, and rather telling, nuggets of information.
“Main con write report to MOM,” he says of the main contractor submitting a note to the Ministry of Manpower. “Seven man inside the report, the Indian man and the China man.”
“All man go interview by MOM.”
I am sorely tempted to interrogate him where he got that information. Workers often mix hearsay with fact and at TWC2 we are always alert to it. But I decide to let it be, because I can see the true significance of those words. The substance or reliability of what he says is not important. The nature is. Those words are an indication that Billal is beginning to think in terms of facts and evidence. He is calmer and a wee bit more confident now.
By this point, Rupesshor Shankar Mondol has vanished from view. The old hand was last seen leaving his seat to shepherd a worried newcomer to another volunteer.
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