Until February this year Anis worked inside a large coal tanker; he would spend around 10 hours in its guts with five men for company, a power hose and the toxic fumes of anti-corrosive paint with which they coated the walls.

Anis’ story isn’t unusual. As a plumber by trade, he was ecstatic to be told by his agent in Bangladesh last year that great things awaiting him in Singapore: he could expect above average pay in a good plumbing job when he arrived to start his new life.

“My agent tell me I will be working in construction, on building sites – not sanding, painting and cleaning a tanker,” Anis says. “I never want this job.”

Anis ended up inside a huge Australian vessel in one of the main shipyards in Singapore; the tanker is used to transport coal and sand for export from Australia. He would operate on shift rotation with five other foreign workers, using a large hydraulic power hose to spray down the dirty walls of the tanker.

A standard morning for Anis would start at 5.20am, when the company truck would arrive to pick him up for his daily commute to the shipyard. By 8 am, he’d be at work deep inside the hold, remaining there in near darkness until noon. Anis would spray up and down the huge eight-storied walls, sand and paint them, to ready the ship for a new load of cargo. After a quick lunch, he’d be back in the bowels of the ship, for another four hours of claustrophobia.

According to Anis, there had been lots of injuries at this company before he joined, including one man who lost a finger with the hose. When I spoke to him recently he had left his company after falling out over the treatment of injuries he sustained while cleaning when the pressure gauge on the power hose mistakenly set at a greater pressure than was necessary for the job in hand. Anis pulled its trigger and was shot backwards into the tanker’s hard wall. He suffered chest pains from the hose shooting into his abdomen, neck and back pains from hitting the wall and has experienced hearing problems too. Unhappy with the company’s attitude towards his injuries, Anis sought treatment at a hospital against his company’s advice. The dispute over his compensation claim was covered in a previous story by TWC2.

For a while after the injury, Anis found himself still working. “Company tell me, I complain MOM, I send back,”  he said. Naturally he didn’t want to lose his job.

Oil tanker cleaning is punishing at the best of times; there is little ventilation inside the tanker, no light but lots of noxious fumes from the anti-corrosive paint used to seal and protect the vessel’s steel holds. The fumes can attack the central nervous system causing health problems including nausea, dizziness and fatigue.

“Every day I finish work and when I leave the tanker, I fall down to my knees and vomit,” Anis says. “Then cannot eat… no appetite. Every day like that.”

Anis’ story is by no means an isolated incident. In Singapore, the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs are usually done by foreign workers from poor countries. They come to Singapore believing they will be given suitable jobs that befit their skill levels – they are told as much on the other side. However, too often they are manoeuvred into a position they don’t want to be in, in a situation they can’t control.

Anis is noticeably strong willed, and eventually did lodge a complaint at the Ministry of Manpower, but I can’t help wondering what the more timid workers endure.