By YC Loh

Picture your workplace being five to seven metres underground and just a few metres wide, inside a one-and-a-half kilometre long drain under a road. The only source of ventilation is via mechanical means which prove inadequate. The air you breathe is saturated with dust particles, which is so stifling that after every ten to twenty minutes, work is halted to allow the dust to clear and restore visibility. Indeed this was where Shalayh Ahmed would toil for three months, as a construction worker on Jurong Island.

Unenviable as the 29-year-old’s position might have seemed, it was exacerbated by his long work hours, from 8am to 9.30pm, six days a week. Small wonder that by his third month Shalayh Ahmed was suffering from respiratory problems. But upon bringing this to his superiors’ attention, a series of events transpired which resulted in him losing his job – a job which although undesirable to others, was nonetheless important to him for the income it brought.

When he first joined the company, he was stationed in a Geylang factory and assigned to the task of grinding (a construction process used to smooth rough concrete). After a time he was posted to Jurong Island as one of two men in his group of fifty to be delegated to do grinding there. Issued only with a flimsy paper face mask – “cheap kind, outside can buy two dollar for 100 piece(s),” he says – he was scarcely protected against the oppressive environment. He was issued just one mask a day, but “after two three hours… it break(s).”

Shalayh Ahmed’s co-worker soon requested a reassignment – “other man… two to three days… he change job,” Shalayh Ahmed reports – citing the intolerable conditions as the co-worker’s reason for leaving. His replacement did likewise after just as short a time. Shalayh Ahmed then soldiered on alone for three months. Unfortunately the enclosed, dusty setting was exacting a heavy toll on his constitution and he felt he should ask for a transfer due to breathing difficulties. But his superiors would hear none of it. “If you not happy, you can go (resign),” Shalayh Ahmed recalls them saying. But unlike the other two men who could resign when they were unhappy, Shalayh Ahmed could not, because being a relatively new worker he had not made enough money to recover the fees he had paid to come to Singapore. His manager and safety supervisor advised him to “every day…eat banana; banana eat, every problem finish”.


Second-hand respirator mask

Shalayh Ahmed then tried to improve his situation without the help of his bosses. He used his savings to buy safety goggles to shield his eyes from the grime that resulted from particles mixing with perspiration – goggles which his company should have provided to him – and by paying for his three visits to a Bukit Batok clinic. Yet his condition did not improve. Despite the doctor’s advice that Shalayh Ahmed wear a respirator mask, his company insisted that he continue using the ineffectual paper masks which tore easily and were seldom replaced, Shalayh Ahmed says.

Later, his company relented and allowed him to visit the company doctor at Boon Lay, but instead he decided to seek further treatment at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH). His superiors at length decided to give him a respirator mask at the hospital’s recommendation – yet it was old and either its filter was clogged with dirt from the start or it became so very soon. It proved no help to him at all. He consequently reported sick at the hospital, where the doctor would certify him unfit to work over the next fourteen days. But after returning to work for a week, Shalayh Ahmed had to report sick again, and was certified unfit for work for another twenty-one days. His superiors then told him he was ineligible for any more paid sick leave “no… medicine money”. The Employment Act stipulates a maximum of fourteen days a year of paid outpatient leave.

With a dispute surfacing, Shalayh Ahmed was suspended from work.


Lodging a complaint at MOM

Aggrieved, he lodged a complaint with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on 30 November 2012. Three months later, the ministry scheduled an interview  with the ministry’s doctor, but held at TTSH. According to Shalayh Ahmed, at this medical review, the doctor told him that his respiratory difficulties were probably not work-related, but would let him return to work for a two-week trial to confirm it.

Debbie Fordyce, co-ordinator of TWC2’s Cuff Road Project, had a dim view of this idea. “It is unusual that a medical doctor would suggest subjecting a patient to a potentially hazardous environment in an attempt to replicate the breathing difficulties that he experienced previously,” she notes. “A doctor is expected to put her patient’s interest first, rather than use the patient to repeat an experiment that could lead to further damage.”

“Furthermore, the employer is unlikely to allow a worker back to the same job knowing that his presence is an attempt to prove the hazardous nature of the job.”

When Shalayh Ahmed went back to the company office and met with his project and office managers, the company resisted taking him back, precisely the outcome that Debbie had predicted. Technically though, the reason given by the company was that he had to supply his own safety boots and helmet instead of the company doing so. Out of cash, Shalayh Ahmed couldn’t afford them and requested assistance from MOM later that day. The officer there said that he would contact the company to resolve the matter, but “until now, MOM officer never call me,” says Shalayh Ahmed.

Continues Debbie: “Shalayh told of other men who worked in the same area.” If an MOM officer wanted to know whether the environment led to his medical condition, “logic would suggest that safety officers talk to them about their experience working in that space.”


Ruled ineligible for WICA

Despite never having started his two-week trial, Shalayh Ahmed was instructed to appear for a second medical review on 29 April 2013.  There, the MOM doctor told him he was ineligible for work injury compensation because documents from TTSH stated that Shalayh Ahmed had a “possible history of asthma in the past” and his respiratory illness stemmed from a pre-existing condition that did not result from his work. This information was ostensibly derived from what Shalayh Ahmed had said to the Tan Tock Seng Hospital doctor previously. He insists that he made no such mention and concludes miscommunication probably occurred, because his consultations at TTSH were conducted through translators.

Shalayh Ahmed argues that the preliminary health screening he underwent on arrival had not indicated he was asthmatic, though the fact is that asthma is not among the conditions the screening looks for. More convincingly, he argues that the symptoms didn’t appear while he was doing the same job in the more sanitary Geylang environment; they only appeared after he was well into his job on Jurong Island. Despite this, the possible miscommunication had undermined his claims for medical compensation, clearly illustrating how language barriers can prejudice a foreign worker’s chances to assert his rights. Being labelled an asthmatic may also bar him from ever returning to a construction job, the only industry he had skills in.

The irony is that just a few months ago, MOM expanded the scope of compensable diseases to include “diseases contracted due to work-related exposure to chemical or biological agents”. But Shalayh Ahmed’s case suggests that determining “exposure” may prove elusive and contentious. For example, even if Shalayh Ahmed had a pre-existing tendency to asthma, would not exposure to such dusty conditions with inadequate masks be a major contributing factor?

Alex Au, TWC2 vice-president, also spoke to Shalayh Ahmed and learned from the worker that MOM’s workplace safety investigators had not asked him about the conditions in which he had worked, or about the inadequate masks he was issued with. “His interaction with MOM was largely about his medical condition,” said Alex, “and up to this point, the ministry may not have any information on file about the conditions at that worksite.”

“It is hardly uncommon for officers in large bureaucratic organisations to approach cases from a narrow angle, and in Shalayh Ahmed’s case, that narrow angle would be the merits of his compensation claim. But not looking at the wider picture would be an opportunity wasted to investigate a possibly hazardous situation on Jurong Island.”

Towards the end of the interview, Shalayh Ahmed showed me the pass which allowed him to stay in Singapore up till 30 April 2013, after which he would likely be repatriated because his case would be considered closed. His medical review being completed, he had no reason to stay. With worry etched on his face, he asks me earnestly, “You… have job?”

I told him that I did not know of any for him, and that I was sorry.