By Joyce Wong
Confronted by enforcers, Arif fled the dorm for his own safety. He left all his belongings behind.
On 18 Jan 2014, fifteen days after a section of a finger was cut off by a cement mixer during work, Arif Hossin Chan Miah received a phone call from Zainuddin (not his real name), one of the company’s ‘workers control assistants’, as Arif calls them, asking him to come to his (Zainuddin’s) room immediately. Arif was uneasy about the order. It was already 10pm. What did Zainuddin want with him so late at night?
The minute he entered the room, his apprehension increased. Bala (not his real name), another control assistant, was also present. Zainuddin immediately passed Arif a piece of paper, saying it was for the insurance claim, and asked him to sign on it.
Having worked in Singapore for five years, Arif has heard stories of how some injured workers were asked to sign some papers and then summarily repatriated without any money or medical treatment. He became very suspicious and worried. He glanced at the paper. It was just a page of English words. Wary, Arif asked Zainuddin what was written on it.
“Just insurance paper. You don’t worry. After insurance come in. I give you. No problem.” Zainuddin assured him.
Now Arif was definitely not assured. He looked at Zainuddin and then at Bala who was standing nearby glaring at him. Picking up his courage, Arif suggested that he would sign it tomorrow after he had discussed the paper with someone else.
“No need to discuss,” Zainuddin pronounced forcefully. “Trust me. Just sign it. Today you sign. I give safety tomorrow,” he continued.
“So did you sign it?” I ask.
“I no sign.” Arif replies.
“Oh. Scared. Very scared.” After a pause, “I very poor man.” He explains emphatically as he gestures to his bandaged right hand that he could not afford to be sent home without any money. He needs to treat his injury so that he can work again. He is the sole breadwinner in a family of five members. His youngest sister is only about nine years old.
“So what did they say after you refused again?” I ask.
“Why you don’t believe?” Zainuddin thundered. And for the next hour or so, he kept trying to talk Arif into signing the paper. Even though Arif was fearful, he stubbornly refused to comply.
Finally Bala said menacingly, “OK. You no sign, no problem.” Then he gestured to him to leave the room.
Trembling with trepidation, Arif quickly went back to his own room and sat down on his bed.
“What time did you leave the room?” I question.
“About 11:40pm,” Arif remembers. I observe that they talked to him for almost two hours. He agrees. Then I invite him to continue his story.
“I no sleep,” he recalls. “I quarrel. I scared he catch me and send me back.”
And so, he sat up on his bed waiting anxiously for dawn to come. It was a long night.
As as sky lightened at 7am, Arif sneaked out of his dormitory on Jurong Island and hurriedly made his way to Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). He was desperate for help. Fearing that the “workers control assistants” would come for him, he left the dorm with only the clothes on his back and what little money he had in his wallet. At TWC2, his case was registered, given a temporary place to rest and issued a meal card for free breakfasts and dinners.
At the same time, he sought out a lawyer, who could try to get a letter of guarantee from his company so that Arif can continue his medical treatment without any fear of summary repatriation.
“Have you seen the doctor after you left the dormitory?” I ask him.
“Have. Hand very pain. Hospital doctor gave medicine.”
“Who gave you the money for the doctor?”
“I pay. More than $100. But I only have $50. Doctor said ‘OK, but next review must pay all.’” Arif hopes the lawyer can get the guarantee letter for him soon, as his next review is coming.
TWC2 vice-president Alex Au and social worker Nor Karno are close by the same evening that I am doing this interview. When I brief Alex about how Arif has no change of clothes, he sends Karno out with a budget of $50 to purchase a few T-shirts, underwear and basic toiletries for him. Arif comes back smiling.
Towards the end of our interview, I ask Arif if he has told his father about the accident; that he has lost a portion of his finger while working.
He looks at me straight in the eye and says adamantly, “I no talking. My father already very worry I work overseas. He will cry.”
What was in that piece of paper that Arif was asked to sign? Why does a demand to sign it cause such alarm?
In this specific case, there is no way now to know, but TWC2 can make an educated guess since we’ve seen several workers who reported that they succumbed to such pressure. In those cases, it later emerged that the document would say something along these lines:
- that the accident didn’t happen at the workplace, and/or
- that the worker waives all claims (for treatment and injury compensation) on the employer, and/or
- that he willingly agrees to be repatriated immediately without treatment.
This is such a common tactic on the part of unethical bosses that workers like Arif who had never been injured or faced with such a situation before, have heard of such goings-on and be on his guard.
Of course, it is possible that in Arif’s case, the document was totally different; that it was, as Zainuddin claimed, just a routine piece of paper for insurance claim purposes. But if so, it would be hard to understand why Zainuddin’s and Bala insisted that he sign on the spot, refusing to allow Arif any opportunity to get it translated or obtain a second opinion.
In those other cases that TWC2 has seen, employers wave the coerced document (with perhaps deceitfully obtained signatures) at the Ministry of Manpower in their attempts to justify either immediate repatriation or denial of the workers’ rights to medical treatment, medical leave wages and compensation for permanent incapacity (if it occurs). Frustratingly, MOM tends to accept such documents at face value, without viewing such documents in the context of how they had been obtained.
It may be argued that if someone like Arif could successfully escape signing it, why didn’t the others? That those others signed must mean they had a choice and that they did choose to sign it.
However, what price does Arif now have to pay? He had to run away leaving his possessions behind.
Moreover, Arif is not reporting what others have reported: that they were confined in a locked room, with enforcers scowling and threatening to throw a punch or two. No signature or document obtained in such circumstances should be treated as valid.