By Benjamin Wong
Approaching Zakir Hossain, one immediately notices the giant white cast that covers his left forearm. What comes to mind are the stories, the turn of events so commonly heard: an accident occurs, a worker gets injured, his work permit gets cut, he isn’t able to get an operation, and maybe is even threatened with forced repatriation. Zakir’s story starts off just like many others Transient Workers Count Too has heard. But stories do not always progress the way we expect them to. Zakir’s is one of those exceptions.
At the age of 20, some of us here might be finishing our national service, looking forward to finding employment or continuing our studies. For Zakir, it was at the age of 20 that he made the journey to Singapore hoping to find a better job. For three years, all went well for him, employed as a construction worker for Song Yi Pte Ltd, and accident-free. But tragedy struck in March 2012, when Zakir was working at Chai Chee. While performing some cleaning tasks, he slipped off the ladder he was on, falling three metres to the hard floor. His supervisor saw it was not a light injury and sent him to Changi General Hospital straight away.
“I very pain, they put injection first,” recalls Zakir. “Wrist very painful, here and here also pain”, he gestures towards his ribs and his back. Zakir was immediately warded, and after initial scans done, a cast was put on his wrist.
Two days later, the cast was removed. “After two day, doctor see no good, say need to op. Doctor call boss, say need op. I call supervisor, supervisor say ‘OK, no problem’ . . . same night operation.” Without hesitation, his supervisor had agreed to the procedure.
And from here, Zakir’s storyline takes an unexpected turn.
Not healing well
He stayed in the hospital three more days before returning to his company dormitory, appointment card in hand for follow-up visits. But to Zakir’s dismay, his wrist did not heal as fast as expected. Four months on, and despite keeping to his appointments, the condition of his wrist deteriorated. Even worse, it became infected.
Prescribed medicine notwithstanding, the infection did not subside, leaving his doctor with little choice. “I come back, doctor say this one infection, need operation.” And so four months later in July, Zakir went through a second operation. He hoped that it would finally fix his problematic wrist.
In August, Zakir was back at the hospital for a scheduled follow-up, anxious for some good news. The doctor would disappoint him. “Doctor x-ray again, say need big big operation,” says Zakir as he looks down at his cast and shakes his head. A third operation, within a span of five months, but Zakir didn’t have much choice.
He informed his boss. “Boss say, ‘You want how many, good, you take care of your hand.’ Three operation he all say OK,” Zakir says with a tone of gratefulness.
At this point I ask Zakir how his recovery has been since the third operation. Zakir replies: “Still got one more.”
“One more? ” I ask with incredulity.
“After big operation, hand cannot move. Move painful. Doctor say need one more operation.” Zakir tries to indicate with his right hand how any slight movement would still hurt.
Recovering from an injury is not always straightforward. Often, for a complicated injury, uncertainty and anxiety weigh heavily on the mind. Zakir could neither work nor do much to speed up the recovery. For five months, as he went to bed each night, Zakir could only hope that the next day would be an improvement, that somehow the wrist would be in a better state than the day before.
The nagging physical injury no less impacts the psychological. “Coming here Singapore because better job, I coming here . . . I thinking I want to work [because] now my father at home he no more working.” But now, his spirit is flagging.
TWC2 often encounters workers whose employers won’t provide a Letter of Guarantee for one operation, let alone three. I was curious as to how Zakir’s employer would react to the doctor’s advice for a fourth operation.
“Doctor say to boss, if i don’t do anything big problem, after one year, two year, his hand big big problem. Boss hear already, then boss agree,” Zakir pauses, before continuing, “This company I four year working, boss know me, say I good worker, and this now suddenly accident, so okay.”
Zakir certainly hopes that he would not need to face anymore complications, and for now he waits for his next follow-up in a few weeks time.
It should be clear by now how Zakir’s story differs from many others’. Indeed he is very fortunate to have an employer that has not rejected his calls, chased Zakir out of the company dormitory, or frogmarched him to the check-in counter at Changi Airport. Here is an employer that has approved four operations, where others would have tried to jettison the ‘burden’ of an injured worker before his first treatment.
Nor, since the accident in March, has Zakir’s boss withheld is his salary from him. Zakir has been paid $600 monthly, in accordance with the salary stated in the In-principle Approval for a Work Permit, a document that is used in lieu of a job contract.
But why would an employer act in such a different way from other employers? One explanation: Treating the rare accident case properly and compassionately would boost the morale of other workers; after all, it benefits the employer to have happy workers working for him. But that could be too cynical a reading. Could it not be that this employer genuinely thinks it is the right thing to do without question? That it is important to treat the worker right, to accord to him the care and eventually compensation that he needs?
What does Zakir think of his boss? “Four years boss good,” he smiles.
We often hear, and write about the negative side of the migrant worker experience in Singapore: Workers being mistreated, exploited, not paid their salary – as reported in many stories on this site. But Zakir’s case, rare as it is, perhaps tells us that we should never generalise. There are good bosses out there; they’re not some mythical creature. The hope is that more would follow the example of Zakir’s boss, to make the exceptional storyline the norm.