By Keith W
Hossain Jabed’s story is one of long frustration. His accident happened more than one year ago, but his medical treatment has been suspended because his employer wouldn’t pay, and now he is likely to be sent home without being properly cured.
“I cannot turn head very much,” he says, explaining his restricted neck movement following an injury to one or more cervical vertebrae. From time to time, he also suffers from “catching pain” at the lumbar region. “At night, sometimes pain running down my leg, right side.” This likely comes from another injury to lumbar vertebrae or related soft tissues.
The doctor told him “backbone damage” and that he needed surgery which would cost $15,000 to $20,000. Explains Jabed: “Doctor say if company pay money, then do surgery. If no money, then don’t know how.” Jabed was asked to obtain a letter of guarantee (for payment) from his employer so that the hospital could proceed.
But, “my company now not accept my case,” he says, indicating that the employer is now disputing that it was even a workplace accident in the first place. “Company say my accident not true one.”
He gets visibly frustrated just saying this. “So I say,” in reply to the company’s allegation, “if no accident, then why have paper I signed? [Translation: Why was there such a document that had my signature?]”
What document was this? I asked. And that’s when Jabed provided an unusually detailed account of the hours immediately after the accident, giving me a valuable picture of the motives and behaviour of key people involved, and how they responded to the incident. Not many workers are articulate enough to provide such a detailed account.
Fell off platform
At around 11:10 am on the fateful day — 28 November 2012 — Jabed was standing on a platform reaching slightly upwards to tighten bolts joining two pipes. A co-worker was standing on the other side of the pipes steadying the pipes for him. As Jabed was tightening a bolt, the spanner either broke or slipped or both, and in that split second — he was possibly ducking the flying objects — he lost his balance and fell off the platform.
It was a 1.5 metre drop, but worse, there were a steel clamp and other material on the ground. He hit his back and neck against them.
“After accident, I call supervisor,” recalls Jabed. “Then he call my agent man, M R Islam.”
“He called all the way to Bangladesh?” I asked.
No, he didn’t. It turned out that Islam was both the ‘agent’ who had arranged the job for Jabed as well as a co-worker — “he is welding in-charge” — in the same company.
Islam came over, and with some cold water, “he massage my head and my back,” says Jabed.
After about 20 minutes, Jabed tried to stand up, but felt piercing pain. He asked that he be taken to a doctor. “I cannot stand, cannot walk, very pain,” he says of that moment.
At this point, the story gets really interesting.
M R Islam then told Jabed that if he chose to “report to safety officer” and seek medical attention, Jabed will face “many problem”.
As Jabed recalls, “Agent man say to me, ‘[If] you complain now, make report and complain to safety [officer], you must go back Bangladesh.'” Simultaneously, Islam demanded Jabed’s wallet, from which the agent extracted Jabed’s work permit, dormitory pass and shipyard gate pass.
Jabed knew the significance of that move. Intimidated, he changed his mind about seeking medical attention. Instead, he rested at the company’s storage shed.
Shortly after, the boss Mr Ang and the project manager Mr Ahkeon (spelling based on Jabed’s pronunciation)– “he from China” — came to have a look at him. As they approached, “Islam tell me, ‘You don’t talk. Anything I talk.'”
It didn’t take long for Mr Ang to assess that Jabed ought to be taken to a doctor, but Mr Akeon then asked whether a report to the safety officer would also be made. To that, Islam said, “no report”.
Mr Ang then asked, “Why not?” Mr Ahkeon then said something (based on Jabed’s recollection) to the effect that “If this man not make safety report, then next time problem how?” There followed by a slightly lengthy discussion, the details of which Jabed couldn’t quite recall, except that at one point, according to Jabed, Islam assured his superiors, “Never mind, I solve everything.”
In the end, Mr Ang gave Jabed $50 so that he could see a doctor.
Alex Au, TWC2 vice-president, drops by at this point in the interview and I give him a quick summary of the case. He finds it noteworthy that the company management was far more concerned about whether or not an accident report should be made, rather than getting Jabed medical attention. Islam also seems to have quickly assumed the role of fixer, silencing Jabed with a threat of instant dismissal and repatriation.
“Their priorities are starkly obvious,” he says with a wry tone.
I turn to Jabed again and ask him where in this story is the aforementioned document that he signed?
“Now coming”, he replies, indicating that he’s reached that point in the story.
Even with $50 from Mr Ang in hand, Jabed was still not allowed to go to the doctor. Islam instructed “company time-keeper” Tarek to “make paper for me to sign and thumbprint.”
“This paper have my name, work permit number,” explains Jabed, “and it say I am accident on this date because I have some headache and fall down. Then I ask my company nothing to happen and no need to safety report. . . and I don’t want to give my company any effect.”
Jabed objected to such a declaration, “but Islam say I must sign before I go medical because he have my work permit. He say, ‘If you don’t sign, tomorrow you go back to Bangladesh. I call boss buy ticket and you go.'”
So Jabed signed. In excruciating pain, he really needed to see a doctor.
And still he was kept waiting till 6 pm — conveniently, after work hours — before another worker, named Riad, came by to take him to Singapore General Hospital in a taxi. If Jabed had been sent to the emergency unit soon after the 11:10 am incident, the time stamp on hospital admission records will indicate that it most likely occurred during work.
Much more happened through the fourteen months since, but the gist is that the company has denied that the accident was work-related, Jabed said (based on what his lawyer informed him), and that the company is basing its assertion on the piece of paper that Jabed says he was forced to sign.
But Jabed’s response is: Isn’t it odd that such a piece of paper even exists? Ordinarily, when someone suffers an accident outside of work, would one be taking the trouble to draft and sign such a disclaimer? Is not the fact that such a document exists rather fishy in itself?
Meanwhile, his lawyer has obtained notarised witness statements from Riad (who took Jabed to hospital) and another worker Jahangir, though what exactly is contained in those statements isn’t clear.
Treatment grinds to a halt
For some reason, the Manpower Ministry is no longer pushing the employer to pay for needed medical treatment, so the back surgery that the doctor says Jabed needs is not likely to take place. Instead, his case has moved to the assessment stage, where Jabed’s permanent incapacity will be assessed for compensation.
Even so, compensation is not assured. If MOM accepts the company’s denial that it was a work-related accident, the company will not have to pay any compensation either. Jabed will go home financially broke and physically broken.