By Elizabeth Zhou
Getting injured is a foreign worker’s greatest nightmare.
Monday, 5 May 2014. The evening was humid. Sweat gathered on his forehead and trickled down his side-burns. Homun adjusted his helmet and readied himself for a bit more work. It was almost time to go home.
Then he plunged three metres, and found himself in a lower deck.
The manhole right behind him had not been boxed back.
From below, Homun could see his friend in a white boiler suit and helmet bobbing frantically at the edge of the manhole. His own shoulders were hurting and a dull pain shot through the back of his head. He felt for his legs, wiggled them and then his fingers –they were still there. He could still move them. Thank god. Everything else happened in a flurry. The safety officer rushed to his side. He wanted to know what had happened and who didn’t close the manhole. There was a lot of talking. He needed to make a report, the safety officer said.
But Homun was starting to feel faint and only wanted to rest. He tried to keep alert, but his immediate concern was that, having been involved in an accident, he could very well be sent home. His heart sank.
Safety standards at Keppel Fels had always been top priority. Every day, they were drilled on its principles and procedures. Homun had always been careful–why shouldn’t he? These were his hands, his fingers, his head, his body. He never understood why his foreman thought they – the workers – were out to deliberately display disregard for the safety rules, as though they wanted to be lackadaisical so boss could get into trouble with the Workplace Safety & Health Act (WSHA). But the hours were long and drydocks were messy environments with swinging structures low and high and moving machinery with razor sharp blades. Even the keenest body could fail and falter.
Reducing the accident rate is important for businesses in the construction and ship repair industry. A good safety record may be the determining factor in securing a a tender. Furthermore, businesses and their employees such as the foreman, supervisor, supplier and project manager may be prosecuted under the Workplace Safety & Health Act (WSHA) unless s/he is able to prove that they have “exercised all such diligence to prevent the commission of the offence” (WSHA). One is thus led to wonder the extent to which these exigencies, rather than align the employer-employee to the shared goal of safety instead sets the supervisor’s priorities against the worker’s immediate well-being.
Last week, his friend Kamal (not his real name) had injured his back when a falling load hit him. He had gone home to his dorm in Benoi to rest and one week later was last seen to be escorted out of the premises — presumably to the airport — by two men. And then his room-mate, Azil (not his real name) who had burnt his hand on a hot work job had disappeared over the weekend without warning. There was a new face lying in Azil’s bed the next morning. Two men seized by repatriation agents in a short span of just seven days! The migrant worker community is constantly abuzz with stories of men being sent home after an unfortunate work accident. Was it his turn now?
The safety officer escorted him to the lorry as it roared to life. His driver, a fellow migrant worker, gestured to him to get into the passenger seat. He averted his gaze and cast his eyes downwards. They might have been friends or even family back home, but here in Singapore, the driver’s role was the company’s will. He had been working here long enough to know that he was not to be pally with him; this was a “worker-controlling-worker” panopticon!
West Point hospital was loud and noisy. But once inside the consultation room, it was silent. The Chinese doctor that examined him did so in silence too. The practitioner had pressed his cold pale fingers all over his body and watched his expression closely, waiting for ‘the grimace’. Could he have fractured his left shoulder? Was that why the patient couldn’t turn his head to the left without letting out a low grunt? His mouth was closely compressed and he seemed to be clenching his teeth together.
Homun was anxious to know too. How bad was the injury? He searched the minutest expressions on the doctor’s face for answers, but try as he might, he couldn’t make out their meanings.
“You, two day MC, OK?” the driver said to him as they drove him back to the Benoi dorm, not so much as a question but more in the vein of ‘be satisfied with that’. Two days later, the same driver picked him up for another examination. This time the pronouncement was: “Doctor say no more MC. You seven days of light duty.”
Homun felt a surge of anger. He was injured through no fault of his. Why did he still have to work? What was “light duty”? His body was still in pain and he had no idea why, despite having seen a doctor. There “was no [medical] card, no one saying me what happen, no saying anything, no paper MC, no saying anything!” He was worried and frustrated. This was exactly what had happened to Kamal too before he had been taken away suddenly.