By Low Guan Hong

Having to work without safety equipment is a common problem faced by migrant workers. And when one decided to speak up for his basic right, he paid a hefty price for it.

Md Shobuj Mia Md Sulaiman started work in a tentage company as a signalman for the crane operator on 16 January 2013. He had attended a course to be a rigger/signalman previously, paying for it out of his own pocket. The work schedule wasn’t easy. Shobuj worked six days a week from 8am to 5pm, and frequently had to work late into the night as well. However, it was at least a job he could handle. What came next wasn’t.

On 13 May 2013, his employer changed his job scope. Shobuj was asked to erect the metal frames that hold up tents. These were large tents too — some five metres high and meant for large events.

He asked his supervisor for a safety harness. When his supervisor failed to provide one, Shobuj refused to climb up. The superior then ordered him to return to his quarters. It was only 2pm in the afternoon.

On the way back to his dormitory in Jurong East, Shobuj tried to phone his boss, but could not get to speak to him personally. However, the employer called back the following day, only to inform him that his work permit had been cancelled and a return flight to Bangladesh had been booked for him. He’d have to go home on 16 May at 6pm.

It seems that for a worker to ask for a safe work environment is considered insufferable insubordination.

It’s not even as if the company didn’t have safety harnesses on hand. Shobuj tells TWC2 that they did. However, they were not handed out to previous workers. Shobuj reckons they should have been, as falling from five metres may result in grievous injuries.

For Shobuj, returning to Bangladesh was not an option. He had earlier paid a sum of $4,000 to his employment agent for the opportunity to work in Singapore for two years. However, with a monthly basic salary of only $520 (as stated in the In-principle Approval), and only four months in the job, it is clear that he has not recouped the agency fee.

With his work permit cancelled prematurely, Shobuj brought the matter up to the Ministry of Manpower. He was put on a Special Pass, with interviews scheduled.

He also tells TWC2 that MOM officials have told him to look for another job within a week or two, but if he can’t find one, MOM will help get him one, he says.

As of today, Shobuj is still out of employment and living on money lent to him by a fellow Bangladeshi friend. But he worries. Apart from debts he needs to repay, Shobuj tells me that he still has both his parents and a younger sister he needs to take care of.

Says Alex Au, TWC2 vice-president: “Shobuj’s story highlights a number of serious issues. Here is a worker who should be entitled to safe working conditions, yet when he speaks up, he loses his job.

“But the effect is not just confined to Shobuj. Consider how this incident affects other workers in the same company. How many of the others will dare point out dangerous practices from now on? If MOM doesn’t not come down hard on this company, then the ministry is trifling with workers’  lives.”

Editor’s note: Shobuj was interviewed by two reporters, both novices, the same evening. It’s a test case to see if a worker like Shobuj, with his heavily-accented, broken English, was understood, especially by rookie interviewers. If he wasn’t understood, the “facts” would come out differently in the two stories. As is apparent, the two stories (you can see the other one, by Teo Yi Hui, at this link) are quite consistent, which gives us confidence that our recording of workers’ stories is reliable. You can also see the way in which a writer’s personal style comes through in the narrative.