By Rahul Advani
Sitting across the table, I was immediately struck by his fresh faced, boyish features and cheery smile. It was difficult to comprehend how someone who looked so young could endure the difficult, physically-demanding life of a manual worker. What struck me even more though, was the level of maturity he displayed in dealing with the problem he had found himself in.
“I came to Singapore only this year and was working for six months”. It was after this that he noticed a sharp pain in his back whenever he bent down, rendering him unable to do the carrying of heavy objects which was a requirement of his job. Before, when he was able to work on ceiling partitions, he could “easily carry heavy objects”, he tells me. “Now, I cannot work at all”.
Rasel tells me that his boss used to be very fond of him and was particularly impressed with his hard work. However, their relationship turned sour after Rasel notified him about his injury. Instead of sending him to a clinic or hospital, his employer began threatening that he would send him back home to Bangladesh. “My boss became very angry, and started shouting at me”, he says. After much reluctance (and one month after he was told about the injury), his boss finally decided to pay for his medical care – as required by law – allowing Rasel to go for an appointment at Singapore General Hospital.
“The doctor told me that in my back, the calcium in the bone used to be very hard. Now it is very soft”. He was told that an operation which could cure his back problem would only have a 60% chance of success and that if he instead waited for ten to fifteen years, the pain would finally dissipate. His boss refused to pay for the operation.
Rasel, unable to work, was subsequently released from his job. After this, he lodged a complaint with the Ministry of Manpower. However, Rasel’s claim has been hindered by his former boss’s denial that Rasel ever developed an injury – a denial which is clearly false considering his boss actually paid for Rasel’s appointment. Rasel, unfortunately, has had difficulties proving this as he does not have a receipt or a Letter of Guarantee evidencing the appointment. As a result, he has been stuck in a sort of limbo, a period of uncertainty.
His dreams of being the provider for his family have been shattered. It has been three months since he has been able to send any money back to his family. He tells me that he doesn’t want to go back to Bangladesh. “I like Singapore”, he says. When asked further about this, he says “Singapore is very clean, and the law is very nice. In Singapore law, the boss and the worker are the same”.
Disenfranchised by the vast social inequalities within Bangladeshi society and the lack of basic worker’s rights within the country’s labour laws, he tells me that “in Bangladesh, the boss and the worker are not the same. The bosses have a lot of power”.
My interview with him ends on a somewhat poignant note, as he begins to reminisce about his childhood, fondly remembering his days as a student in Bangladesh. “At the time I did not think about it, but I miss being a student”.
For Rasel, the option of being a construction worker too seems forever lost.