“Meeting time, they speak all very nicely,” recalls Neelakandan of a meeting at his company office on Tuesday, 22 October 2013. Present were “boss wife”, a Chinese Singaporean, a manager and an engineer, both Sri Lankans. They — Neelakandan’s superiors — asked him for details about the incident on Sunday morning, when his supervisors got upset, and about the accident the evening before.

Then the meeting broke for lunch.

Some time in the afternoon, “two big Tamil man come” into the room, says Neelakandan, now raising his voice to underline his unpleasant surprise. Speaking more with his hands than with words, he indicated how the two guys towered over him, their protruding bellies restricting his room for manoeuvre. They had thick moustaches, ear-studs and other piercings, and ostentatious rings on nearly every finger. “Very scary one”, says the lean worker.

Someone from the office came in and handed papers to the Big Tamils; Neelakandan could see that among them was an air-ticket. “They say to me, ‘You go home tonight.’ I say I cannot, have many things not settle.”

The men were not receptive to any pleadings, so Neelakandan tried to make a run for it. But he was soon caught by the scruff of his neck, and slapped twice for the attempt.

The worker then tried another tactic, asking to go to the bathroom to pee. He was surprised the two Tamils agreed, but had no time to dwell on his luck. As soon as he turned a corner, Neelakandan made another run for it, this time successfully. He got into a taxi and raced to Singapore General Hospital.

Why there?

By coincidence, he had an appointment that same day  at the National Eye Centre for an old eye injury. “Chemical go into my eye,” explains the worker, “but now okay.” Nonetheless he still had one last follow-up appointment and didn’t want to miss it.

Coming out of the National Eye Centre, he walked a couple of hundred metres to the hospital’s emergency unit, and asked to see a doctor for a groin injury that had happened less than 24 hours earlier and still causing him low-grade pain. He got a prescription and seven days’ medical leave.

Tuesday’s events probably had its origins in the morning of Sunday, 20 October. Arumugam Neelakandan — an experienced worker who had been working in Singapore for about twelve years — arrived at the Tuas worksite around 9 am instead of the expected 8 am, missing the safety briefing. His supervisors — “one Bangla worker, one India worker” — scolded him. “They use bad Chinese words,” Neelakandan says, bashfully repeating the (unprintable) expressions.

“But I no talk back,” he says, “I don’t want to make trouble.”

Later that day, the Indian supervisor told him he should report to the company office at Kaki Bukit the next day (Monday). But Neelakandan seems to have negotiated a change in date, with the office agreeing that he need not show up until Tuesday, 22 October. So, on Monday, he was back at work as usual, including doing overtime into the evening.

That was when the accident occurred. At about 8:30 pm, as he pushed a wheelbarrow loaded with “concrete things” up an inclined steel plate, the plate broke. Neelakandan lost control of the wheelbarrow, and in a split second, was hit in the groin by the load as it accelerated down. Another worker saw it happen and raised the alarm.

Neelakandan was taken to West Point Hospital where he was given “medicine for pain and injection” and one day’s  medical leave.

The following day, despite the tenderness in the groin, he made his way to the Kaki Bukit office as agreed, sat in the meeting room where “everybody speak all very nicely.” Until the afternoon when the Big Tamils came.

After the escape and getting treatment at Singapore General Hospital’s emergency unit late Tuesday, Neelakandan’s problem was where to spend the night. He called a friend who agreed to take him in, sharing the bedspace. “He stay near Lavender MRT,” explains Neelakandan, displaying his thorough familiarity of Singapore’s geography after twelve years here.

Thursday, he made his way to the Ministry of Manpower to lodge a complaint, where he was issued a Special Pass. His work permit had been cancelled by his employer.

But escaping from the Big Tamils also meant that, “now I no dress [clothes] to wear,” he points out. “All things I leave behind in the room.” Besides his clothes and daily necessities, “my locker also have Indian Rupees 5,000 and my family photo and my marriage video.” He pauses as the possibility of losing these precious irreplaceable things weigh on his mind, his face betraying his worry.

He’s found out from a co-worker that his locker has been cleared out and all his stuff moved to the company office.

“Don’t know whether they throw away or not.”