Volunteer Christine Pelly flipped Mahadi’s dinner card over and noticed that the date of accident recorded on it was more than one year ago. She directed the young man to your writer, who this evening was interested in the stories of those with prolonged cases.
Visibly, there was no obvious injury on Mahadi. “Where are you injured?” your writer asked.
“My left eye,” he said. “Cannot see.”
“Do you still have hospital appointments?”
“Yes, still have,” he says. “Next appointment April.”
He was injured on 22 December 2011. And he’ll still be seeing a doctor seventeen months on.
As mentioned in Cuff Road Project: 2012 statistics and Workers with gloomy anniversaries, of the roughly 600 workers who participate in our free meal programme each month, about 50 to 80 would have injuries more than twelve months old. For workers who never earned very much in the first place, to be put on such long, involuntary furlough must make their lives very difficult. A closer look at such cases may be helpful in understanding the issues they face.
Mahadi Hasan Mohammed Jamir Hossain, aged 26, is one of them.
It was hard to understand exactly what happened on the day of the injury, partly because of his thick accent, but partly too because he was referring to some very specific tasks he was doing as a construction worker, tasks which an outsider would find difficult to grasp.
But what’s important is that it happened at work, around 7 pm.
He was sent to Raffles Hospital, where he was operated on around midnight and given 5 days’ medical leave. After that, he was certified for ‘light duties’ for about six weeks.
The problem is that in the construction industry, what jobs are there for a low-skilled worker that are ‘light’? So Mahadi went back to work mixing cement. But each time he sliced open a bag to pour the powder into a mixer, a cloud of fine dust would rise, getting into his eyes.
“No goggles?” your writer asked disapprovingly.
Mahadi was far from happy with the situation. But he had no other option. He had paid about $4,000 in ‘agent money’ to get this job, and had started work only about a month before the accident. Recalls Mahadi: “Boss say, ‘You working, you can here stay. If you not working, you go back.’ But I pay so much come here work, how can I go back to Bangladesh?”
After three months he got really worried when he felt his left eye had deteriorated further. “My eye see only white colour,” he says.
By that point, he had had about five or six follow-up appointments at Raffles Hospital. Despite that, it was bad news. “Doctor there say my eye have infection. He say need another operation.”
He was given a choice: to have the operation done at Raffles Hospital, or to seek a second opinion from the Singapore National Eye Centre. He went to SNEC, where doctors agreed that another operation was needed, followed by “many medicine”.
The employer footed the medical bills, but for Mahadi to return to the job was now out of the question. So his work permit was terminated and he was put on a Special Pass in April 2012. A condition of the Special Pass is that he must not seek employment.
Nearly a year on, he is still in limbo. He is still seeing a doctor, still not allowed to work and very broke.
Mahadi gets free meals at TWC2’s Cuff Road Programme and rents a bedspace in Little India for $195 a month. “My uncle working here,” he says, explaining who he gets his $195 from.
“But I think this month, he go back. His work permit finish,” he adds. “He go back, then I money no have, I don’t know how.”
His eye is a bit better, though with blurred vision. But beyond one or two metres away, things get so blur, it’s as good as useless.
“How long more will your treatment go on?” your writer asked.
“Doctor not say.”
Meanwhile the family Mahadi is supposed to support back home has not been getting any of their hoped-for remittances.
What issues are indicated by Mahadi’s case? It is not one where we can point to any party doing wrong. The medical professionals were probably doing their best, but his eye just didn’t heal properly. Perhaps the employer should not have put the worker back to work at the cement mixer, but what other job was there? Construction work tends to be dusty anywhere.
Yet, at the same time, each party could have done a bit better. Doctors could have enquired whether the employer had any suitable ‘light duties’ to offer before certifying the worker for that. If none, then it would be better for the doctor to keep Mahadi on full medical leave. The employer could have tried harder to find suitable tasks for the worker within the site office, but if none available, could have informed the doctor.
The Ministry of Manpower could have done much better too. Does it not realise the hardship caused to workers who are kept on ‘not allowed to work’ Special Passes for more than a couple of months? Why haven’t it designed a scheme whereby injured (but recovering) workers can get temporary jobs of a ‘light duties’ nature, e.g. as packers, toilet cleaners, dishwashers?
Last but not least, something needs to be done about the exorbitant agent fees that trap men in helplessness.