Mozumder nearly died. He was inches away from falling six floors. Then the Ministry of Manpower wanted to send him to jail, accused of lying about the accident.
Today he is a free man, very thankful to Transient Workers Count Too and to pro-bono lawyers Nicole Wee and Joanna Goh of TSMP Law Corporation.
In August 2012, Mozumder Kamrul Islam was working with Nakano (Singapore) Pte Ltd building a condominium, ‘Waterfront Gold’, at Bedok Reservoir Road. He was one of a four-man team led by a worker named Bilal. The latter, in turn, reported to a foreman. The other team members were Khaled and Shalah Ahmed (nickname: Juel).
On the 14th, the team was working on the sixth floor of the unfinished building and tasked by the foreman to lower a tableform. A tableform looks like a table and is used to support the construction of the ceiling or roof. When the latter is completed and stable, the tableform is then brought down. Mozumder tells TWC2 that it is normal to use four or five chainblocks to gently lower a tableform of that size, but on the day in question, Bilal overruled the objections of Khaled and Mozumder, deciding to use only three.
No one was aware that the chainblock used by Juel was faulty. Midway through the operation, it gave way and caused the tableform to swing downwards. As it did so, it slammed into Juel, Bilal and Mozumder. Only Khaled excaped unhurt.
Juel and Bilal were hit on their knees, with Juel bleeding badly.
The tableform hit Mozumder against his back and threw him backwards a few metres, landing close to the edge of the unbarricaded floor slab. A short distance more, and he would have fallen six floors down. “I nearly fell to my death,” Mozumder tells TWC2 through an interpreter. “Even now when I think about it, I shiver.”
In fact, Khaled’s first thought was that his friend had fallen out. Meanwhile, Juel was screaming in pain and the rest of the workers rushed to his aid. Mozumder’s back was also in pain, but except for Khaled, no one came over to help him. People probably didn’t realise he had been hurt, especially since he was lying some distance away.
Juel was rushed to hospital, but Mozumder’s request to the foreman for medical attention was dismissed. Perhaps that was because his injury was not visible. Mozumder was told to return to work, but he was in too much pain to do anything.
Medical treatment at last
On the 16th, Mozumder, seeing there was no chance of getting the foreman to agree to his seeing a doctor, made his way painfully to the company office where he met someone called Ah Yu, said to be the ‘worker-in-charge’. Ah Yu scolded Mozumder for not asking for medical attention earlier — to which Mzoumder replied that he had but was refused — and promptly put him in a taxi to a clinic in Gleneagles Hospital. An x-ray was taken, but it did not reveal any fracture. Mozumder was prescribed two days’ medical leave, and a gel to apply onto his back.
Feeling no better, Mozumder made his own way to Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) on 20 August. Once again he was x-rayed, given two days’ medical leave and prescribed painkillers.
The following day, or perhaps the day after, Mozumder was summoned to the company office, where he was confronted by a certain Mr Hao Eng (spelling based on Mozumder’s pronunciation of the name). According to Mozumder’s account of that meeting, Hao Eng said the company did not believe he had suffered any injury on 14 August. Hao Eng spoke aggressively, said Mozunder, and at one point, slapped him. Mozumder was told to return to work immediately or have his employment terminated.
Not wanting to be prematurely deported, Mozumder went back to his quarters, packed his bags and left the company dormitory. “Every step I took was excruciatingly painful,” recalls Mozumder, “but I had no choice.” Thereafter, he moved about, staying with one friend after another until he found TWC2.
He also went back to TTSH on 23 August, when he was given seven days’ medical leave. Subsequent visits to TTSH extended the medical leave to several months and also included an MRI scan. This scan revealed a dessicated disc and, among other observations, “a lesion in the L2 vertebral body which is hyperintense on both T1 and T2” and which are “compatible with a hemangioma”. Physiotherapy sessions were scheduled.
Accused of lying
Sometime during the following months, Mozumder learned that his account of the accident and his claim for injury compensation were being disputed by the company. It soon got to a point where he learned that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) was going to prosecute him for making a false report, under Section 35(2)(ii) of the Work Injury Compensation Act. The prescribed penalty would be a fine of up to $5,000 or imprisonment for up to six months or both.
He could hardly believe it was happening. His friend Khaled, the only eye-witness to Mozumder being hit by the tableform, had told the injured worker that he had given a statement to MOM sometime around the end of 2012 which would support Mozumder’s account of the incident. But Khaled, whose work permit had just been renewed about a month prior to giving the statement, was terminated by Nakano around 28 February 2013 and repatriated.
Mozumder’s lawyers at TSMP would later inform MOM that
. . . Salauddin (another supervisor) and Assad had contacted Mr Khaled a number of times to tell him that as he had made a statement in favour of [Mozumder] against Nakano, he should not expect to be able to continue with Nakano. These circumstances suggest that there has been a deliberate attempt to eliminate [Mozumder’s] only alibi and favourable eye-witness.
Notwithstanding the above though, Mr Khaled has expressed that he is still willing to assist [Mozumder’s] case in giving his testimony on what he saw on 14 August 2012 and what happened thereafter if he is given the opportunity to do so.
TWC2 would have paid to fly Khaled back to Singapore should he be needed to testify in court.
Nonetheless this treatment of Khaled illustrates a general problem: how difficult it can be for workers to get their co-workers to speak up for them, when the co-workers themselves risk losing their jobs. Or even for workers to tell MOM truthfully how an accident happened when contractors prefer that officials not know about safety lapses. A decent whistle-blower protection policy on MOM’s part is long overdue.
The lawyers also pointed out to MOM that prior to the accident, Mozumder had applied for two months’ home leave. He had not seen his family for three years and his father’s diabetic condition was worsening. The leave application was approved by the company and he had bought a return ticket, to leave Singapore on 28 August 2012 and return here on 28 October 2012. Wrote the lawyers:
. . . it is hardly conceivable that he would forfeit the plane ticket and trip home just to try to falsely claim compensation from his employer, since it would not have been advisable or prudent to leave Singapore for a long period while an injury claim is pending and being processed by MOM.
Finally, after representations by the lawyers, MOM wrote back on 16 October 2013 to say that the charges would be withdrawn. It was a huge relief for Mozumder.
Work injury compensation?
Mozumder’s problems aren’t over yet. He may not be falsely charged for lying, but his work injury claim is not automatically reinstated. The MOM department looking into this told TWC2 that they would “review” why the prosecution branch decided to withdraw the charges before deciding whether to put Mozumder back on the Work Injury Compensation (WICA) process.
This is important to him because unless he qualifies under WICA he will not be eligible for medical leave wages for the long period he was on certified medical leave. It has been more than a year since the injury and he has been unable to work. He’s been living on borrowed money. With his back still hurting, he looks forward to receiving some compensation — but for now, that’s a big unknown.