By Kay Tan
The first thing you notice about Aktar is his wide sunny smile. And then your gaze is drawn to the strange stiff glove on his right hand. When you quiz him about it, the sunny smile slowly falls away, and his eyes film with tears. Recounting the accident brings back all the painful memories of the past two months.
A smart confident young man, 25-year-old Mohammed Aktar Hossain Khalafat Biswas comes from a loving family of parents and five sisters and three brothers in a small village in Bangladesh. He is, or was, ambitious about making his fortune in Singapore. Having completed a contract in 2010, he was back again in early January this year for another stint as a construction worker with HS Engineering & Consulting. Aktar is a man of many skills: hacking, drilling, rigger signaling.
The morning of 15 September 2012 was just another ordinary working day for Aktar, working in an underground tunnel being dug near the Orchard Road. He was the rigger signalman for the day, and his job was to position the roller platform in place and then signal the forklift driver stationed above to lower the steel beams on to it. Each payload consisted of ten steel beams weighing a total of 600 kilograms.
Everything was going smoothly and Aktar was looking forward to his lunch break. He signaled the forklift driver to wait while he pulled the roller platform into place, as he had done many times before. But before he could give the go-ahead or all-clear signal, he saw the steel beams swinging down towards him at full speed. The forklift driver had already lowered the full 600kg load straight onto the platform. In panic, Aktar tried to jump to safety, but, before he could pull away completely, the entire 600 kilograms of heavy steel landed with a thump on his right hand. Hearing the sickening crunch of bones, Aktar screamed and screamed. Excruciating pain shot through him and he soon lost consciousness. Other workers rushed in and extricated him from the tunnel, his hand swelling up like a balloon.
Delay after delay
Aktar was taken up to the container office on the site and laid down, but there was no medical aid on hand. All this while, his whole body convulsed with pain. More than fifteen minutes passed by, he said, but there was still no sign of any safety officer, medical staff or ambulance to attend to him. No one came to check on his injury or render any first aid.
Finally, the supervisor arrived and bundled him into the back of the open company van, to be driven to a hospital. As the van bumped through the traffic, he clenched his teeth to prevent himself from crying out in pain.
The doctor at Gleneagles Hospital immediately took in the seriousness of the situation and ordered an x-ray to be done. Only then was Aktar given a painkiller injection to alleviate the excruciating pain. The x-ray showed the extreme severity of the damage – three fingers broken, the little finger snapped in two places and extensive tissue damage. He was told he would have to undergo immediate surgery, but as there was no surgeon immediately available there, he was asked to go back to the site office and then report at 7pm at Thompson Medical Centre for the surgery.
So back to the site office he was taken.
At 5pm the safety officer arrived, and, along with the supervisor, took him to the nominated hospital. Meanwhile the effect of the painkiller had worn off and the terrible pain returned. It was not until 10m that night when the three-hour operation was carried out .
Early next morning the Safety officer came and discharged him and took him back to the Orchard Road container site office where he was told to rest. On his next visit to Gleneagles two days later the doctor gave him the grim news – he would not be able to work for at least three to six months, maybe even a year.
Aktar asked the doctor about getting a medical leave certificate, but, according to him, was told that the supervisor and safety officer forbade the doctor from issuing it. Looking at Aktar’s shocked expression, the supervisor hurriedly assured him that they would make him perform “light duty only” for a month. Aktar could not believe his ears! How could he possibly get back to work with the bones in his hand smashed and the muscle tissues damaged and swollen?
Not long after, he realized that no official report of the accident had been made to the Ministry Of Manpower (MOM) or the insurance company. He knew this meant that he would not be eligible for any compensation or medical leave and benefits. Aktar reports: “Boss say, ‘If report made, then insurance premium go up, safety inspectors trouble us, so no report to MOM or insurance company, okay?'”
Frustrated at this unfair treatment, Aktar said he told his boss, “You no give MC, I no take medicine.” According to him, the boss replied in an aggressive tone, “Now only one hand broken Aktar, but if you go to MOM, I break your other hand and leg also.”
Aktar felt totally helpless but had no one to turn to for advice. The pain in his right hand kept him awake at night; he could not bathe properly or even wash his clothes. Homesick and depressed, he managed to contact his family back home. On hearing about the accident, his mother could not stop wailing loudly in grief. This made him even more miserable. He missed having his family around him in his time of need.
He worried about how he would manage if his employer sent him back home as soon as he was a bit better. As he explained, in a helpless voice, “If my boss send me back, how I pay for my treatment, my medicine? Cannot work with this hand for long long time, how I support my family?” The pain in his hand and this uncertainty made him more and more depressed.
After a few days of living in the hostile atmosphere of the site office, unable to bear the pain and afraid that he would be shipped off to his home country very soon, he decided to consult a lawyer. On the latter’s advice, Aktar went to Tan Tock Seng Hospital where the doctor on duty gave him seven days’ medical leave, followed by another 21 days.
His fear of being forcibly shipped out of Singapore by the company made Aktar move out of the company dormitory. Now, he moves from one place to another, subsisting on the charity of worker friends and colleagues. The free meals provided by the TWC2 keeps him going from one day to another, waiting and hoping that justice will be done.
Despite the pain of having to recount his harrowing experience, his sunny smile flashes once again as he bids me goodbye . . . for him, hope is still alive.
UPDATE, 18 July 2013: Treatment has run its course, but Aktar’s right hand remains slightly deformed. His knuckles have lost flexibility and he cannot much flex his fingers. Naturally, it means he is unable to grip anything with his right hand. He has been awarded 24 points (out of 100) after evaluation of permanent incapacity and offered compensation of around $32,000. He is still deciding whether to accept it or to choose other options.