By Wendy Mah
On the second visit to a doctor, Venkata was told an operation might be needed. In the meantime, a cast was put around his injured left ankle. How many days’ medical leave did he get?
“The doctor said no MC needed, go to work,” recalls Venkata with a mordant note to his voice. “He gave light duty.”
It was just one more episode that would leave the young man from Vijayawada, Andra Pradesh, depressed.
Three years ago, 27-year-old Pastula Venkata Ramana paid a hefty sum of $4,000 as agency fee to work in Singapore, yearning to provide a better life for his family. Everything was all right until a 24-inch steel pipe came off broken chain blocks, falling on his leg at around 2 pm on 14 July 2012. It shattered his dream of a better life.
Now all he wants is to get compensation and return to his home in India.
Once injured, Venkata immediately informed his boss and supervisor about the injury. As his left ankle grew more and more swollen, it would seem a matter of urgency to send him to the hospital. Yet, the safety officer delayed his exit from the construction site for three full hours until 5 pm. “Security check,” Venkata says the reason was, though what that could possibly be was left unexplained.
At last, Venkata was sent to a small clinic in Jurong. Instead of performing the necessary X-ray tests (or referring him to a hospital with X-ray facilities) for broken bones, the doctor simply gave him a bandage, some painkillers, and a two-day medical leave certificate (MC). But the pain persisted and two days later, he went to the company-appointed West Point Hospital where a doctor finally gave him an X-ray examination. Not much was explained to him about the nature of the injury, but a cast was put on the ankle. The doctor suggested an operation, but Venkata, perhaps fearful, refused it.
That was when he was told there would be no MC.
Suffering from tremendous pain, Venkata stayed in his dorm for fifteen more days. He wasn’t actually asked to go back to work.
Alex Au, a senior volunteer with Transient Workers Count Too, speculates: “While we can’t know for sure, it appears that the employer and doctor knew very well that he was unable to work. By Venkata’s account, the employer didn’t insist that he show up for work, not even for light duties.
“What may be more pertinent is the rule that any workplace accident resulting in a worker given more than three days’ medical leave in a row has to be reported to the Ministry of Manpower. In Venkata’s case, he was given two days’ MC by the first doctor. Any additional MC given by the second doctor would have made the incident a mandatorily reportable one. Might this have figured in their decisions?”
The leg or the job?
Still in pain two weeks on, Venkata decided to make his way to National University Hospital (NUH) without seeking consent from his boss. There he was given a new cast and a shoe to go with it. This time, the doctor said no operation was necessary, but issued him a two-month MC.
His boss was clearly not happy about this, reports Venkata. “Boss said, ‘Why hospital again? I already sent you to West Point. You want to go outside, you pay yourself.'”
What other option did he have? Venkata forked out $150 himself for the NUH visit.
“My leg was swollen,” says Venkata, but his boss wasn’t going to be so forgiving about letting him stay in bed anymore. “Boss still said, if you don’t come to work already, you will be sent back to India,” he recounts, adding with a weak smile, “Don’t like the boss, so don’t care about losing the job.”
In mid-August, about a month after the accident, the employer passed an ultimatum to Venkata through the Safety Officer. According to Venkata, the Safety Officer said: “Tomorrow you come back to work. If we don’t see you, will send you back.”
“I have a [follow-up] hospital appointment tomorrow.” the injured worker pleaded, to no avail.
Treatment for his leg being more important than pleasing the boss, the following day, he went to NUH, helped and escorted by his older cousin who worked in a shipyard. After the hospital visit, he sought out a lawyer, who helped report his accident to MOM and initiate a work injury claim. His lawyer also advised him to move out of the company dorm, settling him into cramped quarters on Campbell Lane.
Venkata now has to pay $230 a month for a bed – one of sixteen packed into a room.
It’s been four months since the move to Campbell Lane, and his case is still pending. Venkata feels acutely that his employer showed no concern for him. He seems frustrated about it, and perhaps about the fact that he has no work and no income now. The routine is depressing. “Every day now I eat, sleep, pray.”
Addendum, 11 May 2013:
On 26 March 2013, we received an email from the former employer of Pastula Venkata Ramana saying that several statements in our article about his case were incorrect. TWC2 conducted a re-interview with Venkata and our findings are published at this link.