By Benjamin Wong

Arumugam Ramachandran first came to Singapore four years ago. For three years Ramachandran worked injury free, but seven months ago, during a routine construction job, Ramachandran injured his knee. At first, he was unwilling to report it, and tried to carry on working, hoping the pain would go away eventually.

For the next three days, Ramachandran would work for about half an hour, before the pain became unbearable and he had to stop and rest for a while. After the third day, when the pain became too severe, he reported the injury to the employer and was sent to a doctor.

The doctor’s instruction was clear. “Doctor say, no running, no carrying,” Ramachandran explains. The doctor’s advice had practically ruled out any form of work, and for the next three months, he stayed at the company’s dormitory, waiting for his injury to heal.

At first, Ramachandran’s boss covered his medical fees and appointment expenses. “MC money, three month boss pay,” he explains.

MC money is a living allowance mandated by law for workers who are on medical leave following a workplace injury.

But after three months, things took a turn for a worse. All too often, employers see little point in taking care of injured workers, and they are subsequently chased out of the dormitory, many times without just remuneration. Ramachandran’s continued “unproductivity” with little sign of recovery had clearly irked his supervisor. The latter began to grumble, and each time he did, he “give problem”.

It did not take long before, with conflict in the air and a rising sense of personal insecurity, Ramachandran had to leave the dormitory. After three months, “supervisor no give makan money, no more sleeping [in] company [dorm].”

“No makan money, food how?” I ask Ramachandran.

“I go temple makan. Weekend, sometime friend borrow,” replies Ramachandran. Makan is the colloquial term for “eat”.

Ramachandran knew it was not sustainable, and he managed to find a job opening in Tampines. He would be doing odd jobs, but he would be compensated with food, and not money.

So, he started on the job — for one day. Ramachandran raises a single finger to emphasise the point. “Next morning, MOM [Ministry of Manpower] catch,” for working illegally.

Lucky or unlucky? Perhaps fortunately for Ramachandran, this turn of events saw  him receiving what had previously been withheld from him. After probing Ramachandran’s case and hearing his story, the MOM case officer handling his case contacted his employer.

“MOM talking [talk to] boss. Next week, boss give $800. Next month, boss give $400.” It sounded like the resumption of MC allowances. “Ok no problem, money give,” Ramachandran says, “money, boss give.”

And what about the supervisor that chased Ramachandran out?

“Supervisor got talking [a scolding],” Ramachandran nods, smiles and gestures with his hand, “boss good, supervisor no good.”

The reality may be more nuanced than that. What exactly happened in this case may not be known, but often, employers choose to mistreat migrant workers, or look the other way when their supervisors do so, so long as there are no ministry officials breathing down their necks. Employers want plausible deniability. However, as Ramachandran’s story illustrates, employers will adhere to the letter of the law when pressed.

Thus, much depends on how diligent an MOM case officer is when looking into a case. Some see a worker working illegally and treat it purely as the worker’s transgression, focussing on the punishment for him. Others can see the dire economic situation behind the instance of illegal work and deal with the root cause.

In that sense, Ramachandran was lucky. Had he not been caught doing his illegal odd job, it is very likely he would not have received the $1,200 in MC money he was entitled to.

But it should not have had to come to that. Employers should be acting rightly and treating their workers justly as a matter of course, and not compel injured workers to seek illegal work out of desperation. Such a happy situation will only happen when MOM imposes deterrent penalties on employers for stopping MC allowances in the first place.