By Danielle Hong

This evening, Khan Masud, amiable and floppy-haired, is a first-timer at Transient Workers Count Too’s free meal program, known as the Cuff Road Project. He heard about the soup kitchen from an acquaintance living around Rowell Road in Little India and decided to come by. Sure enough, he got a free meal, and – I hope – a friendly ear.

His former employer Sin Hong Thai Engineering Pte Ltd may call him a ‘run-away’ – re-applying the kind of language last used during the slave-ownership era. On his part, he sees it as timely escape from the possibility of being forcefully repatriated by an unreasonable employer. Either way, the fact is that he left the company’s dormitory in late May 2014 about two weeks after a work accident at the Keppel Fels shipyard where his job was. It’s a story heard countless times by TWC2 volunteers; lots of migrant workers feel they have to quit company accommodation for their own safety.

Khan Masud’s left shoulder was hurt in that accident on 14 May 2014, and throughout the interview, his left arm remains unnaturally immobile. I later discover that he can’t raise the arm without serious pain.

What went into the decision to quit company quarters? It’s a question I am interested in.

The turning point for his move came from a combination of two chief factors: his superiors’ reluctance to see through his medical process and his own fears after witnessing fellow workers taken away.

He concedes that he hadn’t actually been told by his boss or supervisors that he will be sent back to Bangladesh against his will, but he knows that if they are of a mind to do so, they’re not about to give him advance warning. In any case, it was a close-run thing. “Site boss say if you go MRI, Keppel Fels will give you bar for two years,” he reiterates. “He say no use go lawyer, wait for us to send you back to Bangladesh.”

It is quite unreasonable, and against the law, to demand that an employee forgo medical treatment — ‘MRI’ stands for magnetic resonance imaging, a means to diagnose soft tissue damage, and which was recommended by the doctor to better understand the degree of injury — on pain of being barred from returning to Singapore for any new job for two years.

Around 27 May, after having visited three separate doctors to treat his shoulder, a friend of a co-worker who used to be from the same dorm but has since been repatriated, urged him to seek immediate advice and passed him the contact of a Bangladeshi legal assistant from the law firm Dominion LCC.

His social circle within the dormitory was thus utilised as a first call of port for advice, monetary loans and contacts to seek further help. In all, he has borrowed around $800 to rent a bed at Rowell Road and pay for daily needs and medical expenses.

Likewise, his faith and trust in seeking out a lawyer based on a friend’s recommendation also transmitted into faith in the lawyer’s abilities to handle his medical claim and shield him from premature repatriation. Masud genuinely believes that the lawyer will “take care” of his problems. He also seems to hold the vague idea that the lawyer will do all this out of goodwill, with honesty and no eye on self benefit. Thus far, says Masud, the lawyer has not charged him for his legal services, nor has he even mentioned how much (if any) his services will eventually cost. Interestingly, instead of seeing this failure to communicate prospective costs as something worrisome, it may even have increased Masud’s trust and confidence in him. The non-discussion of fees may cohere with the worker’s hope and expectation of a ‘protector’ in a patron-client type of relationship, rather than set it coldly as a purely commercial one.

The migrant worker’s decision-making process once an injury has happened is thus based on factors, including information shared through social circles. Masud’s choices thus far to leave the dormitory, seek out a lawyer, rent a bed and obtain food from the Cuff Road Project have all been based on push and pull factors, including trust in his own social circles contrasted against deep distrust of his employer.