By Gabriel Liong
After working a long shift plus an additional four hours of overtime, Sahajan was looking forward to a restful night. It was 9.15pm. His day at the shipyard had begun at 7.30am. Climbing into the back of his company’s lorry, Sahajan made himself comfortable for the ride back to the dormitory. Little did he know that his night was far from over. While driving along Lim Chu Kang road, his company’s lorry was involved in a pile up which sandwiched the lorry he was in between two other vehicles. As he was seated on the flatbed of the lorry without any safety belt, Sahajan hit his head hard against the lorry, leaving him with injuries to his head and left eye.
A sense of fear can still be felt in his voice as he recounts the accident, “Everywhere, blood. A lot of blood.”
Sahajan Bashir, 32, is one of the many Bangladeshi workers who come to Singapore to work in the shipyards. They come here seeking employment, but an unfortunate number suffer worksite injuries that leave them unable to work, or even with permanent injuries. For Sahajan, this latter concern is a very real one. His left eye has still not recovered, capable of “only see raining” – a description of the poor vision through that eye.
In order to better understand the obligations of employers in such situations, I spoke to Nor Karno, a social worker with Transient Workers Count Too. He had this to say: “Generally, in such situations, the company is responsible [for treatment and continuing support] since the worker was on the company’s vehicle, and moving from the worksite to the dorm.”
He added that under the law the obligations of companies in such circumstances are to provide the following:
- Two-thirds wages for the worker while he has a medical certificate (MC).
- A guarantee letter to hospitals to acknowledge that they will foot the bill for needed medical and surgical treatment.
However, many employers shirk their responsibilities and leave the workers to fend for themselves. Sahajan’s case is no exception; when asked about these entitlements, he replies, “Boss never pay MC money, hospital money, any money.”
While his employers have provided a guarantee letter to the hospital, he believes that most of the hospital bills have not actually been settled, and he has had to pay the hospital bills on several occasions out of his own near-empty pocket to obtain treatment.
Since his accident too, Sahajan has been paying for most of his lodging and food expenses with his own hard-earned savings which have hardly been sufficient for even his basic necessities. Often, he has had to borrow money from friends.
The family back home
Perhaps the saddest part of this story relates to Sahajan’s family. Since his arrival in Singapore six years ago, Sahajan has been doing his best to save and remit money home every month. However, this has proven to be an uphill task, as the salary he receives is hardly enough for even his own expenditure. “Pay only $500, $400, $300. How to makan [eat], how to give father mother money?”
With two aged parents and seven siblings back home who depend partially on the money that he remits, Sahajan feels the strain of not being to provide adequately for his family. This is especially so since he has been unable to work due to the accident, and consequently unable to send any money back.
Towards the end of the interview, I ask Sahajan how his family feels about his accident.
He confesses somewhat sheepishly that he only informed them of the accident six months after it had occurred. “Before I tell my father mother, I know they will headache so I don’t talk.”
At that point, Sahajan had been unable to remit any money for several months, prompting his family to inquire about his circumstances. It was then that he revealed to his family what had happened.
For Sahajan, and many other migrant workers who have suffered injuries, a huge problem comes from the sluggishness of their employers. Often, the reason for this is that employers intentionally delay payments for as long as possible, hoping that the injured workers give up and leave Singapore. In this way, the companies avoid “additional expenses.”
This interview with Sahajan has prompted me to see the deeper reality behind the irresponsibility of such actions; by failing to live up to their obligations, many employers compromise the livelihood of not just the injured worker himself, but that of his family, who depend greatly on whatever money he is able to send home.