When Khairul intervened to pacify two co-workers having an altercation, the boss, who had been watching all this while, suddenly came forward and pushed Khairul flat to the ground. He mounted Khairul’s chest and attempted to strangle him. The poor worker did not have a clue why all this was happening.
For days afterwards, he could not eat. It hurt too much. Finally, he decided to make a police report, but now that he has done so, he is stuck in Singapore for the duration of the investigation. How is he to survive?
Wanting to hear his case, I met Khairul Islam Abdul Khalak Bapari on a weekday evening in a food court near an MRT station. As it was nearing dinner time, I offered to buy him a meal but he declined, insisting that he should pay his way if he were to eat. Khairul finally accepted my offer to have a cup of tea, that too after much persuasion. I was amazed at the self-respect this 32-year-old Bangladeshi national possessed. Ironically, it may be this highly laudable virtue of self-respect that has led him to a state of joblessness.
A skilled welder, Khairul started working in a family-owned construction company in Woodlands since October 2011. In this job, he was promised to salary of $24 a day, but was paid only $22. Khairul says, “For one year, I never ask anything. On Sundays also, my boss never pay me double money”. Workers expect double-rate when they are asked to work on Sundays, as provided by law.
About six months ago, Khairul mustered the courage to ask his boss why he was being underpaid. From then on, he could clearly see a change in his boss’s attitude towards him: “My boss never talk to me. No talking, only working”. But Khairul continued to carry out his job as usual despite the cold silence.
On 20 December 2012, while Khairul was welding away, one of his co-workers started an argument for some silly reason and punched Khairul in his face. Khairul alleges that this co-worker was instigated by his boss to pick a fight with him. Later that afternoon, the same co-worker had a quarrel with a third man. Khairul tried to pacify the two, and that was when the boss came rushing forward to choke him. Why me? he must have thought. But at least he was alert enough to notice that “All this captured in CCTV camera,” he tells me..
After enduring a painful night when he could not eat anything, he went to the company office the next day. The boss’ mother took him to see a traditional Chinese practitioner, who “massaged” his neck and gave him two days’ worth of medicine.
Recalls Khairul: “Boss no talking, aunty only talking,” referring to his boss’s mother, and underlining what he perceived as continued hostility from his employer.
Peeved by this attitude of his boss, Khairul lodged a complaint with the police – yet another instance when Khairul’s self-respect came to the fore. When I ask him who suggested making a police report, his answer was, “No one tell me. Why I keep quiet when I did no wrong?”
The police asked him to go to Khoo Teck Puat Hospital to have his injuries examined and recorded. The doctor also gave him treatment and certified him for five days of medical leave, which suggests quite serious injuries. “No food. Only drinking”, says Khairul, referring to his liquid diet. He was unable to take solid food — such was the damage done by his boss to his neck, oesophagus and trachea.
In the box at right, the exact steps that Khairul took after making the police report are detailed. They led to a formal Magistrate’s Complaint being issued, which triggers a police investigation of the alleged assault. At the time of writing, this investigation has not yet been concluded.
In the days that followed, the boss’s family members tried to contact Khairul several times. Perhaps, they’ve been informed that it has become a police matter. At first, Khairul ignored the calls, but on 19 January took one. It was his boss’ sister. She promised to settle all his dues the next day, upon which he agreed to return to Bangladesh. He was eager to see his wife and two sons again.
At the agreed time the next day, Khairul went to the airport. But no one from the company showed up: no passport, no air ticket, no salary. Then, to his surprise, he received a phone call from a police officer telling him he could not go back to Bangladesh as his case was still pending.
How did the police know about his plans to return to Bangladesh? Perhaps, when the boss tried to cancel his work permit, the Ministry of Manpower might have alerted the police. This is yet another sign that the investigation is being taken seriously.
Khairul is now waiting for the resolution of his case. He is able to swallow normally again, but little else about his life is normal now. He is staying with his cousin and at times eats with TWC2’s Cuff Road Project.
“Now, I only sleep. I am ready to work in another place,” he tells TWC2. “Can you write a letter to MOM ?”.
TWC2’s social worker Raymond has taken on Khairul’s case, to help get him onto the Manpower Ministry’s Temporary Job Scheme. The man should not be jobless through no fault of his own.