By Benjamin Wong

Sahabuddin is in pain. Sahabuddin wants to get rid of the pain in his back and return home, but he cannot do so. He has been waiting for an operation since April – he had to forgo a scheduled operation date for July 23rd, because his employer has not signed his Letter of Guarantee (LOG).

It all began because of an accident last year. On 3 October 2011, Sahabuddin was working on a rooftop building, carrying a metal wire grid, when his leg slipped down a water drain. “After that I cannot walk”, he recalls, describing the extreme pain he felt. Realizing the seriousness of the injury, his boss sent him to the hospital straight away with the lorry.

Initially, there seemed to be no serious injury to his back. “Doctor say nothing problem… X-ray come out say no problem”. Yet Sahabuddin insisted he was in great pain. The doctor then sent him for a MRI scan, which revealed that his lumbar [lower back] region was indeed injured and required an operation. The first operation in October did not fully cure his injury, and the pain still persisted. “three months still pain. Pain always there. I cannot sleeping also. Medicine change change also no help”

Seeing little improvement in his recovery, the doctor suspected Sahabuddin might have a more serious injury, and sent him for another MRI scan. The scan revealed further problems with his lumbar region, and he would need another operation to fix it. The doctor told him that the operation would cost $18,000.

Sahabuddin went back to his employer’s office, but upon seeing Sahabuddin, his employer suddenly became very angry. Throwing his file at him, the manager shouted at Sahabuddin, “Why you coming my office? You go out of dormitory! ”

Soon, finding himself jobless and thrown out of his quarters, Sahabuddin went to the Ministry of Manpower. The MOM officer convened a meeting, and the boss said that he would cover the operation costs. “Boss say ‘I do for him no problem’”, Sahabuddin recalls, with disappointment.

However, as the operation date of 23 July drew closer, he was unable to get his employer’s approval. “Manager say now money no have, you must wait,” said Sahabuddin. The Letter of Guarantee was not signed as the manager insisted that he needed to pay cash. “You don’t know this one need pay cash?” It is unclear what might have been meant by that, but one possibility is that the cost of the operation exceeded the insured amount, and the employer would then have to pay for it out of its own pocket.

Clause 3 of Part II of the Conditions of Work Permit issued by MOM, and considered binding on all employers of foreign labour, says that

The employer shall be responsible for and bear the costs of the foreign employee’s upkeep and maintenance in Singapore. This includes the provision of medical treatment …

Clause 5 of Part II adds that

The employer shall purchase and maintain medical insurance with coverage of at least $15,000 per 12-month period of the foreign employee’s employment (or for such shorter period where the foreign employee’s period of employment is less than 12 months) for the foreign employee’s inpatient care and day surgery ….

The plain reading of the law is that even if insurance is exhausted, the employer’s liability still stands. It is therefore mysterious why MOM is allowing the employer to drag things out. MOM might think that it is being reasonable to let the employer find the necessary funds, but does not the suffering of a human being count? Why be lenient on an employer, which should have access to bank overdraft facilities, at the expense of a worker’s health and emotional state?

Sahabuddin has since been trying to contact his manager, but does so with apprehension, “Manager sometime nice, sometime no nice. Sometime he just say no free no free later call. Sometime he angry, he say ‘why you call me?!?’”

Sahabuddin sighs, “[Manager] also say: ‘So many day why you still like this!?’” But the worker really had no answer to that. It’s not as if he could will away the injury and pain. Yet, needing the employer’s help, he couldn’t assert too forcefully his right to medical care.

And so he continues to wait for his LOG and be cured enough to go home. “I don’t know when he give. I scared I call he talking no nice… How many month I wait, my back very painful,” Sahabuddin laments. “Please I want to go back country, I so many month this injury.”