Video by Gan Chong Jing. Text by Stefan Tuchen with contribution by Gan Chong Jing. Based on interviews in August 2020
A few months after his accident on 21 March 2020, Bapary Mohammad Monzur, 38, attended his disability assessment at Changi General Hospital. Most of us would expect privacy when we speak with our doctors, but in Monzur’s case, not only did the boss show up, but, according to Monzur, spoke privately with the doctor behind closed doors for 40 minutes. Monzur had to wait outside.
Monzur accuses the employer of trying to influence the physician, probably by showing the doctor videos that the employer had taken of Monzur. His employer showing up at his medical appointments and interfering has become a norm for him since the accident.
After a course of treatment for a work injury, workers are assessed by a doctor for the degree of permanent disability they are left with. The doctor’s assessment will factor into the monetary compensation that will be offered to the worker.
In fact, on one recent occasion, the employer had shown TWC2 those videos too. On that occasion, Debbie Fordyce, TWC2’s president, was accompanying Monzur for a medical appointment and while there had an encounter of her own with the boss. She was shown a video of Monzur walking down a street as evidence that he was a liar and did not, in fact, suffer from any major medical condition.
Monzur is convinced that his employer showed videos like this to the doctor(s), and paints the picture of a boss obsessed with depicting him as dishonest and trying to benefit from faking a painful injury. Moreover, when the boss speaks to doctors, “They talking Chinese. I no understand.”
Leaning on his walker while telling his story to me, the 38-year-old construction worker from Bangladesh shares how his employer joined him for every doctor’s appointment and discussed his case with the attending physician.The concept of doctor-patient confidentiality didn’t seem to apply.
There is apparently another video, taken in the kitchen of a shophouse near Jalan Besar, where Monzur used to be housed by his employer. The kitchen had CCTV surveillance, says Monzur. He recounts an instance of one doctor’s visit where the boss purportedly showed a video of Monzur cooking as proof that he was a liar.
But, says Monzur, “I injured still need to eat, right?”
Objected to the result of first assessment
Monzur is unable to tell us what exactly the outcome was of the assessment (in which the boss spoke privately with the doctor for 40 minutes), having no documentation regarding the result. That assessment occurred prior to his showing up at TWC2, so we could only depend on him telling us the history. All we know was that there was a decision from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) regarding compensation but Monzur was dissatisfied with it and he then lodged an objection.
A re-assessment was scheduled, for which he would have to bear the cost. “I pay myself. $300 something!” he tells me.
To provide some background information, on 21 March 2020, Monzur was working on site when he felt a sharp pain in his lower back while using something he simply described as “some heavy machine” on a ladder.
There followed a series of medical emergencies in the subsequent months resulting in three more episodes of hospitalisation. They occurred as a result of Monzur being immobilised by excruciating pain from his back and legs, which he attributes to his employer continually refusing to provide him with any assistance in accomplishing errands or tasks despite his injury, forcing him to do things himself even though he could barely walk.
Having to get and prepare food was one of those tasks, as his employer did not provide meals despite his condition. Pointing in the general direction of Jalan Besar, the street where he used to live when he was housed by his employer, he explains how he was returning to his room after buying food on 22 July 2020, when suddenly, he could not feel his legs. He fell down the stairs and was rushed to hospital.
Two months earlier, on 19 May 2020, Monzur similarly collapsed in his room from excruciating pain and was sent to the emergency room at Changi General Hospital.
On bad days when the pain rises, Monzur needs a walker (zimmer frame).
Between the May and July episodes, there was the June incident. This one involved the police as well. On or around 30 June 2020, Monzur‘s Special Pass was due to expire and Monzur had to go to MOM to get it renewed. The boss refused to take him to there (Monzur alleges that the boss told him to go there on his own). Monzur made the trip alone.
On return to his room, the boss angrily questioned him as to why he left the house, claiming that he never gave Monzur permission to do so. The boss called the police on him.
The police came and questioned both sides. When Monzur‘s story about needing to renew his pass checked out, they left, but that night, Monzur found himself unable to get up from his bed due to the pain in his back. The trip to MOM might have aggravated the condition. After video-calling an online clinic, he was advised to call an ambulance, which he did. He was once again sent to Changi General Hospital and warded for five days.
This second hospitalisation in June may be particularly significant, because the CGH doctors ran a second series of tests on Monzur — MRI scans, X-rays, and blood tests, similar to those that he underwent when he was first injured in March. After this second series of tests, the orthopedic specialist who has been overseeing Monzur’s case since the beginning concluded that Monzur needed to undergo surgery. On 5 July 2020, he wrote a memo for Monzur’s boss and for MOM, saying
Patient was recently admitted under Orthopaedic Surgery from 1/7/20 – 5/7/20. Patient is currently planned for surgery 13/7/20.
Monzur’s boss refused to pay for it and the operation did not take place on the scheduled date.
TWC2 would later help Monzur consult with the same doctor again (16 July 2020), and he told Monzur and us that from a medical standpoint, the surgery was necessary, regardless of who was supposed to pay for it. We learned that the operation was for “Spine, prolapsed disc, discectomy“, and that it would cost around $16,000 to $18,000.
At this visit, the boss showed up too, together with his wife and son, and spent the entire session denying to the doctor that Monzur was in need of surgery, continuing to insist that Monzur was faking his illness.
In other words, doctors told Monzur’s boss thrice within the span of July that Monzur needed surgery,
- memo of 5 July 2020
- at the appointment on 16 July
- after Monzur fell down the stairs on 22 July
Each time, the boss refused to pay, claiming that Monzur was play-acting.
Another pass renewal incident
The same trouble with renewing Monzur’s pass happened again in July a month after the late June incident. This time, Monzur was in hospital and unable to make his way to MOM for renewal on the 28th of the month.
He tried calling the boss but calls were not picked up. He then asked a nurse to help him and she called MOM to inform officials there of the situation.
Finally, on 4 August, the boss brought Monzur to MOM to renew his Special Pass, by which time, it had expired and normally there would be a penalty. The boss claimed that he had no knowledge of both the pass’ expiry as well as the fact that Monzur was in the hospital, putting the blame for the brief overstay on Monzur. It was only when Monzur showed proof to MOM that he had repeatedly attempted to contact his boss that MOM agreed to renew his pass.
Monzur is suspicious of his boss‘ motives. He speaks of an earlier incident in May when the boss tried to “force“ him to return to Bangladesh, therefore depriving him of medical follow-up. Monzur sees these attempts to get him to overstay his Special Pass (by not taking him to MOM to renew the pass) as another means to getting him kicked out of Singapore for an infringement.
It is difficult to understand why the employer is behaving this way. It may seem as though his boss also holds some sort of personal grudge against him – why else the reported insistence on exposing him as a liar?
However, Monzur claims that prior to the accident, through nine months of regular employment, his relationship with his employer was excellent. “He always say my work very good. He say I’m his best worker.”
After things turned sour, his boss even wanted to send the former “best worker” home prematurely, “now [that] I not useful anymore.”
On 22 August 2020, I sit down with Monzur once more, this time in the small room he rents on Desker Road. Laid out in front of me is a stash of painkillers.
Just the day before he had another doctor’s appointment and to his surprise, his boss was nowhere to be found. “Now points coming already. Boss no want to come”, he says, implying that it was too late for his boss to try and wield any sort of influence over the doctor because the re-assessment has been done and the degree of disability (“points“) determined. This was about a week earlier.
His new doctor determined 10% permanent incapacity, says Monzur.
Naturally, listening to only the workers’ account can paint a one-sided picture. The first doctor could very well have been right. Medical opinions aside, however, it is curious and seemingly unnecessary that his employer would choose to not only accompany him for every medical appointment but also insist on discussing the case with the doctor.
Why should any employer, hostile or not, be present for medical appointments of his employees? Even if Monzur had been lying about the extent of his back problems, a medical professional should be able to tell without video evidence and a statement by the employer. Furthermore, the discussion of medical details should be privileged information between a doctor and his patient.
Othering and dehumanisation
However, when it comes to migrant workers, the trend of othering, shaping an “us” and “them” narrative, appears to extend all the way to medical confidentiality. While people with a “higher” status than these so-called “low-skilled” (even if “low-paid” is a more fitting term) labourers generally enjoy carefully protected privacy when it comes to their medical history, men like Monzur do not.
This is further exacerbated by COVID-19. Due to mismanagement of the dorm situation and the resulting explosion of cases, migrant workers are now required to have their test results handy wherever they go (if they are even allowed to) as proof that they are free of COVID-19. Their disease status now must be revealed to countless other parties.
Meanwhile, Singaporeans and “higher-tier” migrant workers, or expats as they prefer to be called, merely need to have their temperature taken.
A back problem is usually not a touchy subject, but what if the medical issue is below the waist? There are plenty of medical issues that could be categorised as embarrassing for the patient. Why should employers have the right to pry into a domain so highly personal and private?
For now, Monzur will no longer have to deal with his boss during his doctor visits. His new doctor recommends physiotherapy for now instead of surgery and after receiving his financial compensation, Monzur will return home to Bangladesh.
Then it may be the turn of other migrant workers to have their privacy violated.
Readers might have noticed that TWC2 also accompanied Monzur to some of his medical appointments even as Monzur took issue with his employer doing so. The key difference is that Monzur wanted TWC2 to accompany him and assist with his treatment programme whereas he did not want his boss to be present. In the same vein, Monzur agreed to be interviewed by TWC2 volunteers for this story and willingly gave us information about his medical condition.