By Mayank Tripathi

“Why should I go to a dentist for a broken foot?” exclaims a visibly weary Md Sultan Khan, when he begins telling me his story.

About a year ago, Sultan, an employee of Sino Marine & Engineering, incurred an injury while at his workplace in Keppel shipyard. He was initially treated at West Point hospital, but after only 30 days, the boss began to feel the pinch of costs and Sultan was asked to go to another clinic. This Sultan knew to be a dental clinic, so Sultan, taken aback, naturally refused. With relations between him and boss soured, he later chose to go to Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) to continue treatment.

Today, it’s been over ten months since his first visit to TTSH, but Sultan is in limbo. He is waiting for his medical assessment, but can neither join work nor return to his country. Meanwhile his mother continues to mortgage land in Bangladesh to sustain his monthly S$200 monthly rental for a bedspace.

Sultan’s is a typical case that exposes the gaps in the low-income foreign worker labor structures, where employees suffer because they’re often not informed of their rights and employers tend to exploit employees’ lack of information.

Around noon on 28 February 2013, Sultan’s foreman asked him to move a metal plate weighing around 80 kg, and put it in an assigned space. Sultan got a co-worker to come with a forklift and together, they moved the plate. After the friend had left with the forklift, Sultan realized that the plate wasn’t exactly in the assigned spot. He decided to nudge the plate on his own. That’s when the big metal piece slipped and fell on his foot.

He was rushed to the shipyard’s first aid centre and from there, taken — rather later, in the evening — to West Point Hospital in Jurong. He underwent an operation and was sent back to his dormitory that same night, with a plaster cast and medical leave, which eventually totalled 54 days.

Over the next seven weeks, he visited West Point four to five times for medication, and was scheduled for a major check-up on 23 April 2013. However, just days before the appointment, Sultan was summoned to his employer’s offices and was informed that the company would not be supporting his treatment at West Point any further. Sultan says the boss told him, “You no going to West Point. Many many money lost already. You follow the driver. He take you to dental.” A heated argument followed and that’s when Sultan decided to refuse and walked out. The company driver later explained to him that the boss wanted him to go where they were told to go because “they can claim insurance from the dental clinic.”

This is difficult to comprehend. As Balam, a senior volunteer with TWC2, explained, “By right, every employee should be covered by work injury insurance.” With such insurance, the cost of medical treatment at West Point should not be a ‘loss’.

It’s not really possible for TWC2 to know what lies at the root of this problem with the company’s insurance, but eventually, Sultan was asked to leave the dormitory and a week later he began renting a place with other Bangladeshi workers in Geylang. There, he was introduced to a local lawyer who advised him to go to Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH). Sultan didn’t have any money to support his treatment, so TTSH, following their ethical guidelines, began treatment at a notional cost of $15 – $20 per visit while asking him to get a guarantee letter from his employer for the balance of the charges. Ten months on, and despite several reminders to Sino Marine, there is no guarantee letter yet.

Despite the surgery carried out at West Point, Sultan’s fractured foot has not healed properly. He cannot walk normally or put much weight on it.

This article is a call to action for several stakeholders. On one level, it calls for a greater awareness of safety at work and on another level, it calls for both employers and employees to understand insurance policies. It also a call to reduce the red tape-ism involved in the medical profession so Sultan can carry on with his treatment. But most of all, it’s a call for a more humane treatment toward fellow human beings. Most readers of this article probably don’t face similar situations, but that’s where the irony lies. While we are happy to lead a life of equal rights, there are a few among us, who continue to suffer.