Your writer asks Deepak (not his real name) how much overtime he worked, and gets a long-winded response that doesn’t quite answer the question. Instead Deepak describes how he has to work two, three or four Sundays a month, sometimes at the main project site in Loyang, other times at a site in the Novena area.

Why the switch between two sites?

“Because MOM was investigating the Loyang site,” he says in Tamil through a translator. The crew would be relocated to Novena “when MOM was coming.” Deepak believes MOM officials were checking for excessive overtime work. Under the Employment Act, a maximum of 72 hours of overtime is set.

The Manpower ministry really needs to wise up to some employers’ tricks, your writer thinks to himself.

The same question about overtime hours is put to Deepak again, and persistence eventually pays off, with Deepak revealing that six days a week, he would work from eight in the morning to ten at night. That’s fourteen hours a day. Except for a few Sundays off, he would work to 5pm on what should be his rest day. A back-of-the envelope calculation indicates that he was pulling some 36 overtime hours a week, or about 140 to 150 hours a month, double the maximum stipulated by law.

Deepak has come to Transient Workers Count Too over a back injury. Or rather, two back injuries. He seemed never to have recovered from the first — in April 2013 — yet was put back to work, only to hear a dreaded ‘crack’ in mid-March 2014. Pinning down how much heavy work he was doing could help explain the relationship between the two incidents.

As a construction worker, Deepak’s main job was to be a human mule — to carry steel rebars from one place to another. (What happened to the very concept called Mechanisation?). He was also tasked to transport steel formwork.

In April 2013, as he was carrying a set of steel rebars (jointly with a fellow worker), something from above hit the rebars. He fell into a small trench, the rebars raining onto him, and hurt his back and left shoulder. The company sent him within the hour to a specialist clinic in Gleneagles Hospital, where he was given two days’ medical leave and ten days’ light duty.

Then a strange thing happened. At the expiry of ten days’  light duty, “the doctor told my safety officer that I should not be doing heavy work,” recalls Deepak in Tamil. But the doctor did not officially certify him for light duty. “The doctor also told me that there was a chance my shoulder could come down again, so I was to continue doing light duty.”

For the next two months, Deepak was assigned to do housekeeping work around the company office. He had to bend repeatedly to pick things up — “I bent slowly and as far as I could,” he says — and tried not to use the injured arm. Nonetheless he was kept working to 10pm every weekday. He didn’t say if he had to work Sundays too.

In July 2013, he was instructed to return to his regular job lifting and transporting rebars, “but I could only support them on my right shoulder,” he tells TWC2. “If I put weight on my left shoulder, it would hurt.”

The hours were the same long ones, with the twist of being sent to Novena some Sundays. Unsurprisingly, his back gave way again in March 2014.

What follows is a bit of a complicated story with him having to find his own treatment because the safety officer at first wouldn’t assist, then being sent to Gleneagles again when that safety officer’s original decision was overruled by superiors.

Once more, he received two days’ medical leave. This was followed by five days’ light duty, extended by a further fourteen days.

It’s too early to say how Deepak’s case will turn out. But already, the doctor’s recommendation to do an MRI scan — needed for a better diagnosis — is being rejected by the company, which wants the worker to just go home without further treatment. That’s the kind of warning sign TWC2 sees very often, indicating trouble ahead with this case.

But even as Deepak is trusting that his doctor knows best, your writer cannot help but wonder at the length of medical leave being given: two days after each injury. It so happens that under the law, a work safety incident report is only mandatory when a worker has received more than three days of medical leave. How convenient. But without such reports, MOM cannot have a good idea how frequently injuries and safety lapses occur. Nor should it go unnoticed that while the doctor genuinely felt that a few months of light duty was warranted after the first injury, he put only ten days on paper. Why so shy?

Is the regulation and monitoring of work safety becoming a joke?