By YC Loh

I winced as the young man showed me his mangled left forefinger — an injury that may cause him and his family much financial hardship in the future.

Sooriyamoorthy Senthilkumar arrived in Singapore from Tamil Nadu on 30 May 2012 to work as a gardener. Over the next few months, he worked ten-hour days under the scorching sun, trimming the brush around Singapore. However, the 27-year-old’s experience in Singapore got even harder after 17 November 2012, when he suffered an accident at work.

On that day, his brush cutter was malfunctioning and he attempted to repair it. Holding the brush cutter in one hand and a hammer in the other, he tried hitting the machine to jump-start it. It worked, but unfortunately he had his finger too near the cutter’s blade when it did. The consequences of this led to the National University Hospital prescribing “seven days and two months” of medical leave for him, with light duties for the following month.

For the latter, the company shifted him to the role of leaf-blower. According to Senthilkumar however, they failed to issue earplugs to him, which may constitute a safety lapse.

Depressing as any injury may be, it was compounded when, he said, his company refused to award him paid sick leave. This would be an illegal act as under Singapore law, it is mandatory to continue paying an employee two-thirds of his average gross salary if he is on certified medical leave.

Indeed, his financial woes were even more dire than that. When I asked if he had received any salary for the month of light duty, he replied “that month…no give”. In fact, on further questioning he revealed that for the past month “all men… no give” – meaning that none of his 30 fellow workers have received their salaries either.

Senthilkumar hesitated when I asked him what they intended to do about it. “Nothing”, he answered, because they were too “scared” to protest. Senthilkumar’s boss had threatened to make him “go back”, and none of the other workers wanted to risk repatriation too by standing up to the boss. They are still working even now, despite not having been paid.

Senthilkumar was already in the red, having had to pay his agent the equivalent of S$2,500 to find a job for him in Singapore with a company known as ‘TT 500 Construction’. In “India give $2,500,” he told me. But upon arrival, his company demanded another $2,000. “Boss [ask me for] more $2,000”, he explained. In the end the sum was reduced to $500, which was deducted from his first month’s wages. This appears to be another infringement under the law. Employers are not supposed to demand kickbacks from workers.

When I inquired as to why he did not seek redress from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), he replied that it was “hopeless” and “MOM cannot help”. What did he feel about the $500 deduction? He alternated between saying that he felt “pain”, with his hand over his heart, and “nothing”.

Comments Alex Au, a senior volunteer with TWC2, “This guy seems so bewildered by the system and so powerless, he doesn’t even know whether he is entitled to have feelings, let alone fight for his wages.”

When Senthilkumar notified his family in India about what had happened, his wife and elderly mother “cried”. It must have been distressing for them, but he didn’t have the English words to elaborate.

There will doubtlessly be increased complications in bringing up his two daughters, aged three and one. With his father “gone”, the burden to take care of his family is largely on him. Yet, he still has further medical appointments in Singapore, and will not be able to work for some time. How ironic it is that he came to Singapore to escape financial hardship, only to meet with such a predicament that will trouble him for some time to come.