By Ankur Kumar

It was early August last year when Hossain Mohammad Arif’s friend took the crucial decision of taking ill Arif to Alexandria Hospital. Arif’s condition looked serious enough for him to opt for a not-inexpensive cab ride. The decision sure looked sound to the doctors at Alexandria. Arif was diagnosed with typhoid.

Arif had come to Singapore on 24 July 2012. Barely ten days after his arrival, he was down with fever. When asked about his hospital stay, Arif described it as “Five day continuous saline. Stay hospital seven days.”

His condition improved but his medical problems did not end there. Barely a few days after discharge, Arif was told he had liver issues. “They say liver dry… so stomach issues,” he told this writer. Treatment needed about one and a half months and it was only in late September that Arif was finally able to start work.

The medical bills were paid by the company, but if Arif thought his troubles were behind him, he was painfully mistaken.

A rude shock lay in wait for him. He was informed that the money paid by the company for his medical expenses would be deducted from his salary. Arif was unconvinced. He had always assumed the employer was responsible for his medical expenses. Although he did not want to agree to this, he was faced with an ultimatum from the boss, who said (as recalled by Arif): “If you no sign, today send you back.” Concerned about losing his job, Arif reluctantly signed the pay slips, agreeing that the deductions were correct.

Subsequently, starting October 2012, his pay slips started showing monthly deductions of $250, depicted as repayments of a “loan” . This, said Arif, was not a correct description.

Although clearly upset, the fear of repatriation kept Arif silent till July 2013 when the company started laying off staff and he was on the list. His work permit was cancelled. His employer gave him a piece of paper and instructed him to “sign here and go airport,” told Arif. Angered and upset, Arif refused to sign and went to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

Arif did not explain what was on the piece of paper that he found so unacceptable but an educated guess can be made. Says Alex Au, TWC2 vice-president, who has seen many such cases, “It would likely have been something along the lines of agreeing to accept some small amount as gratuity, in return for giving up all further claims against the company for unpaid salaries, overtime and medical expenses.”

(More details about how Arif was held by repatriation agents can be seen in the story Phone call: Fourteen workers told to get off the bus.)

While struggling with precise calculations, Arif knew his employer owed him close to $5,000 including his June 2013 salary, his savings and overtime pay. If he had hoped for sympathy from the MOM, he was disappointed. Arif was told by his case officer to “take 500 dollars, plane ticket, passport and go home.” The reasoning given to Arif appeared hard to believe. If within the first three months, an employee becomes sick, he has to pay for his medical expenses out of his own pocket, he was told.

However, a reading of the medical obligations of employers on MOM’s website did not indicate any such condition. Medical expenses appeared to be the responsibility of the employer alone. TWC2’s inquiry to MOM regarding any hidden clauses with respect to this has gone unanswered.

Arif appeared to be upset with MOM for other reasons too. “MOM officer support to company. Officer spoke to office staff in Chinese language,” he told this writer. While accusations of bias could be a matter of perception, Arif could be forgiven for being frustrated. Stuck between an employer eager to get rid of him after recovering the medical costs Arif thought would not befall him and an unsympathetic MOM, his path ahead seems to be clouded with uncertainty barely one year after entering Singapore. If indeed true, it hardly seems fair to put the burden of medical costs on a foreign worker when the worker barely earns enough to sustain his lifestyle and save a pittance for his family back home.

TWC2 tried to contact Arif again in mid-August to know what further developments had taken place, but his phone was no longer working. It’s not a good sign, as it suggested that he’d been sent home abruptly.