By Benjamin Wong

Where do these out-of-job workers stay? This question is often asked.

Hardly any of them are housed by their ex-employers, though in theory the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) expects employers to continue providing “upkeep and maintenance” until the worker is repatriated. But rare is the case when an employer actually does so. It’s a cost that, unless MOM applies maximum pressure, companies will try their utmost to avoid bearing.

Most workers therefore stay out on their own when they’ve lost their jobs. Indians and Bangladeshis prefer to stay around the Little India area. It is where they can get social support, food that’s familiar to them, and services (e.g. phone calling card shops) that cater to their needs. Especially when they are injured or otherwise out of work, the social support  — and access to TWC2’s free meals programme — is all the more important.

However, as three cases here will show, landlords extract the market rate of $200 monthly (sometimes more) per person for a bunk. Typically, there are six to eight bunks in a room. That’s $1,200 to $1,600 in rental income per room. Loads of laundry hanging outside a room (see picture above) is a good indicator of conditions within.

Three months after starting work, construction worker Sumon Ali met with an accident. On 23 July 2012, a pipe at his worksite suddenly sprang a leak, spraying a burst of chemicals into his eye.

At the clinic, the doctor cleaned his eye and arranged for subsequent visits. While his boss paid for all the medical bills, Sumon’s eye still hurts two months on. “You see, one big, one small”, as he gestures towards the swollen right eye. It would have become apparent to the employer that this worker would not be able to resume work soon.

Sumon soon heard that his boss wanted to send him back. “My boss talking agent, saying take him back. Agent talking related man, say send back.”

Despite the broken English, the meaning was clear. Like many other cases that we have seen or heard, Sumon was threatened with being sent back to Bangladesh. It is not surprising that for an employer, an injured worker often makes for an unwanted worker.

A fellow worker with better English helps to explain that after his injury, Sumon feared that his boss would be moving him to a holding room for repatriation. He decided to get out while he could. Being repatriated before completing treatment or receiving workman’s injury compensation was not a prospect he would gamble with.

Sumon can count himself lucky, for he has a cousin here, with whom he now stays. Sumon has his own bunk in a crowded Little India room, for which the monthly rent is $200. His cousin pays his rent, and also gives him money to buy food.

But there’s nothing to do most days. “Now see  [my] problem, cannot working properly,” Sumon refers to his eye and his joblessness again. “Now sleep, makan, jalan-jalan, no money,” using the Malay words for “eat” and “walk around”. Sumon grins, and lets out a laugh. For now, Sumon seems to be happy to rely on his cousin, and take things as they come.

Shah Alom’s story is very similar to Sumon’s.  In fact, very similar to many other injured workers’. In his case, despite being sent to Raffles Hospital after the accident, he was given only two days’ medical leave. This puts the incident below the threshold that makes it mandatory to make a report to MOM. The employer avoids a safety inspection and without a work accident report, no compensation process commences.

That the injury was not a small one can be gleaned from the fact that Shah Alom was given two months’ light duties. It indicates that the doctor didn’t consider him fit to resume construction work till after a long recovery process.

Learning of the two-month light duties certification, “My boss say, ‘I send back you.’ He want me go home Bangladesh,” recalls Shah Alom. “After that, I cannot go dorm sleep anymore.”

He was afraid that repatriation agents would come and seize him on his boss’ orders and forcibly put him on a plane.

Fortunately, he has cousins and an uncle also working in Singapore. They’ve chipped in to help pay for a bunk bed in Little India for him, also at a rate of $200 a month.

In the meantime, Shah Alom (left) has had to pay for his own treatment at Tan Tock Seng hospital. “One time I pay $300.” TWC2 volunteers have advised him to keep all receipts and add them to his claim lodged at MOM.

Even when quitting the dorm to escape the possible clutches of repatriation agents, workers need to make an accident report at MOM as soon as possible. Some, unfortunately, don’t know this, and don’t come into contact with TWC2 early enough to be informed of this.

Madab Mondal was given 25 days’ medical leave for his 29 June 2012 injury, followed by light duties. Two weeks later, “Boss say I must go back to Bangladesh,” he tells TWC2. “I not happy, so I go away.” He left the company’s accommodation.

Two days later, the employer cancelled his work permit and reported him to the police as a missing worker. At the time, Madab didn’t know this.

It was much later that he learned he had to make an accident report, and on doing so through his lawyer, he was told that he should show up at MOM. His work permit had long been cancelled and it was necessary to regularise his immigration status. This he did fourth week September, but he also faced a penalty for overstaying his cancelled pass.

“MOM summon me $500 for overstay two months,” Madab says, strangely happy about it. “I pay already.”

Madab had been working four years in Singapore and had some savings. $500 is quite a bite out of that but he was probably relieved that he was no longer considered an immigration offender and got his injury compensation process going too. That though is hardly the end of it. Now, he’s faced with having to pay $200 a month for a crummy bed while he waits out the process.

But what about those whose accidents occur soon after they’ve started work and haven’t built up any savings? Where will they be staying?

[With additional reporting by Alex]