By Lee Kah Ghim

“I see helmet throw at worker, supervisor kick worker. Every fault supervisor also hit.” Sanjit Debuath tells me. “One time supervisor ask worker go outside, supervisor hit him. Worker call police then next day worker sent back to Bangladesh.”

During the fourteen months he worked at a Korean construction company — he would later change employers — Sanjit witnessed so many incidents of verbal and even physical abuse that he has lost count.

“Don’t know why they not human,” he said of the supervisors. “I think company cannot [be] like that.”

And more: Once, his co-workers left five minutes early for their lunch breaks since they reckoned they had completed their share of work for half the day. They were called back by the supervisors and were made to do squats continuously. Sanjit, who was still working when his colleagues left for lunch, was not spared either. The punishment went on for such a long time that some of them started to feel weak and had trouble standing. Still, the supervisors did not relent; instead, they kicked the men who could not pull through. Sanjit said, visibly agitated at this point: “Supervisor kick my friend when he cannot stand up. Then one man finally sent to hospital and three days never come work.”

I was appalled. It was like a scene from an interrogation of terrorists. I had thought physical abuse was stringently cracked down upon in Singapore.

The final straw for Sanjit was when, returning from his lunch break to his work site ten minutes early, he encountered two supervisors, visibly cross. Without a word, one of them kicked Sanjit’s rear. Sanjit was shocked.

“I ask my supervisor how he can kick me?” Sanjit recalls of the incident. “My supervisor say he wait very long already. But I go back early already. So how he can kick me?”

“So that day, I cried. And I finally quit.”

For a foreign worker, quitting a much-hated job brings no joy at all. With parents, a wife and a seven-year-old child to support back in Bangladesh, Sanjit had no choice but to hastily take up a new job at another construction company.

The second company

The new employer’s accommodation and food were way below the standards of what Sanjit had at the previous company. “Here, very lousy food. The place man cannot stay. Night time rain come in everywhere water. Here, safety nobody follow.” Sanjit shook his head. “But no choice I want money.”

Alas, tragedy struck Sanjit just a few months into this job. He fell 1.2 metres, breaking his wrist and hurting his back. Hospital doctors put him on medical leave (it would eventually total 157 days).

Even so, Sanjit’s employer called him up a few days after the accident, insisting that he go back to work. Sanjit protested that he could not even get out of bed let alone go back to shifting beams and concrete. His employer’s reply sounded outrageous to Sanjit: “Try to help with one hand. If cannot, then stand-by. But you must come back.” The following day, Sanjit dragged himself out of bed and went back to site.

He tried to make himself useful for ten days despite a bandaged arm and pain in his back. But unable to bear it any longer, Sanjit went to the Ministry of Manpower to demand his rights. Needless to say, he lost his job.

Sanjit tells me of the situation he is in: “My family ask me go back. If I have money, I want go back. Now whole day wake up, take makan, sleep. Mentally I cannot like that. I want work.”

Far from leisure, the empty days are filled with worry. There are four mouths to feed back in his hometown and he doesn’t know when he’ll be any help to them.