By Lim Wei Zhen

Seventy to a hundred kilogrammes make a heavy load to share between two men. Yet for Elias Malu Miah (picture, right) and Mahmudul Hasan Majbar Rahman (left), as well as many like them, it is a burden they must shoulder most days. While the Construction Safety Orientation Course teaches that the maximum load a man should lift is 25kg, some employers think otherwise.

“I tell boss 70 kg too heavy, I cannot. But he say, ‘You still young, still strong.'” Elias shakes his head at the recollection. He is not alone. Mahmudul too shrugs as he remembers, “I tell boss not allowed, boss say carry or [if] you no happy, go back.” The latter is a clear threat that if the worker continues to disobey, he will lose his job and be sent back home.

There is a reason for the authorities to set a maximum load. At 4pm on a Sunday afternoon, pain seized Mahmudul’s back. “I carry frame with glass with friend, 100kg, then back pain, I fall down, cannot stand up.” Mahmudul points to a door to illustrate the size of the frame. But still, his boss turns his back on him. “Boss say ‘Sunday hospital off, today cannot go. Wait [until] tomorrow,’ and ‘Cannot go hospital, only can go polyclinic.'”

Helpless, he could only wait in agony as he was helped back to the management centre to “rest”.  But he could barely catch a wink, as the pain consumed most of his sleepless night.

Mahmudul would make a series of visits to the polyclinic. Initially, the company’s lorry driver would drive Mahmudul there. However, on subsequent visits, Mahmudul had make his own way to treatment, a journey of one hour. “I go by bus with friend to Jurong West.” Worse, in a span of three days, he chalked up bills totalling $260, of which the company has only reimbursed $50, he says.



No show by boss

Like Mahmudul, Elias also worked as a glazier. Shouldering a 70 kg steel frame inset with glass, he too, stumbled. “Friend say, ‘Waiting (till the end of the day) okay or not?’ I say no okay. I try sleep, but rest cannot.

“Supervisor come, safety officer come, tell me must go boss hospital. I stay there one day one night, doctor say must do operation.” An appointment was made for three days later, whilst being put on medical leave.

Three days came, and his boss did not appear. He called his boss. “Boss say ,’Tomorrow no go hospital, today my wife baby appointment.’ Boss say next day go bring me hospital.”

However, the boss didn’t show up the following day either. “Next day, my pain cannot tahan,” adds Elias, using the colloquial term to indicate that the pain was too severe to tolerate.  So, “my friend bring me go Tan Tock Seng [Hospital].” There, the doctor informed him that he had to operate immediately, regardless of his boss’ wishes. He operated.

Fortunately, Elias has a slightly happier ending. After his operation and with the help of a case officer at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), the company’s insurer was made to foot the bill.

As for his company itself, it came to light that it had gone bust, and his boss had fled to India, nowhere to be found.

Mahmudul and Elias are not alone. The power imbalance between employer and worker greatly hinders our work safety laws from having their full effect. It is only when bodies are broken that such instances come to light. Why don’t businesses invest in appropriate lifting equipment? How many more Mahmuduls and Eliases must there be before things improve?