By Nigel Lin
I offer Pitchai a handshake – it is my first time interviewing a foreign worker and hey, I thought it’d be polite to do so.
He takes it up, albeit rather weakly. That prompts my first question. “Is your right arm okay?”
“Very pain when I moving the hand,” is all I can decipher from him, along with a shake of the head to reassure me that he is otherwise fine.
It was the morning of 3 July 2012, as Pitchai Pillai Rajasekar, 24, and his co-workers hopped up the company lorry, ready for another day’s work. Despite being fitted with a canopy and higher side railings (made compulsory for all lorries under the Road Traffic Act a few years ago), it proved insufficient for the safety of the workers seated behind. Barely five minutes into the journey, an oncoming vehicle smashed into the driver’s side. The impact was so hard, the lorry flipped.
Eighteen workers were injured and one died. Pitchai was among the former statistic; a broken bone in his right foot and a damaged right shoulder kept him in Changi General Hospital for fifteen days.
“I cannot (remember) a lot, only that (it was) dark, 6am. And then I scream, wake up and in hospital already,” he recalls of that fateful morning.
After being discharged from hospital on 18 July, he returned to his company’s dormitory with a four-month medical certificate and an indeterminate recuperative period.
Fast forward to today and Pitchai’s all packed up and ready to head back to India next week. His employer, Beng Khim Construction, has evidently decided it is pointless to keep an unfit worker on its payroll.
Sixteen weeks of recuperation has done little to ease his pain; he still walks with a little limp and he can barely carry his dinner back with his right hand. He’s fighting to get back to being able-bodied enough to work, praying every single night that the injuries will heal. But while the mind is resolute, the flesh takes its own course.
Pitchai stepped on these shores 19 January this year with a bag full of clothes and a heart full of hope. With his 29-year-old brother struggling to put food on the table for the family of four, it was up to him to bring back the dough. With an enormous burden on his young shoulders, the last thing he wanted was to have his career cut short, through no fault of his own.
That’s the harsh nature of his job, however, and that of the many transient workers here; lose your physical capabilities and you’re surplus to requirements.
With his work permit still valid as of today, his company is technically still responsible for providing Pitchai with acceptable accommodation and upkeep, under the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations. Yet, he is no longer staying in the company dormitory – he didn’t explain what exactly happened – and he has to pay for his own lodgings. For meals, he depends on TWC2’s free meals programme.
Oddly enough, Pitchai bears no grudges, despite having to leave his dorm. “They treat me very good, all the time,” he says of his employer. Perhaps he’s grateful that at least he’s gotten the medical treatment he needs. Other workers struggle to get their employers to pay for medical care or have their treatment delayed. He’s also been paid monthly despite being laid up.
He now rents a bunk bed above a restaurant for $200 a month, $200 that should have been saved, by the way. And, to better put the financials in perspective, two-thirds of his monthly $750 salary goes back to his family in Goa. That’s $250 left for himself.
You do the math.
Compare his predicament to mine and the fortunes are contrasting, to say the least. When I was rendered immobile for a good eight weeks as a result of a torn muscle, my then-employer immediately eased up on my working hours and even allowed me to work from home for a while. If that didn’t work out, no problem, I could always find another job when I’m ready.
For these workers, it doesn’t quite work this way. Migrant workers are typically viewed as disposable.
Before he left, he managed a smile that was anything but. I asked him one final question, in a last ditch attempt to sieve something out of him. “What are you really sad about, Pitchai? You can tell me, don’t worry.”
It turns out that he hasn’t found a way to break the bad news to his family. “My family, they don’t know I go back,” he says. “They need my money, but now I cannot work.
“Just like that, I go back India. Just like that.”