By Meera Rajah
Shahadat Hosain, like many other migrant workers from Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, Thailand and the Philippines, took a job with a subcontractor of Keppel Shipyard in hope of creating a better life. He was prepared to put in the strenuous manual labour that most locals shy away from, hauling heavy metal pipes over his shoulder.
Unfortunately, on 7 December 2013, what Shahadat had perceived as his golden pass to ‘the nation of opportunities for all’ vanished when he was confronted with a blue-collar worker’s worst fear: injury.
Shahadat had been tasked with carrying a 35-kilogram pipe – 3-inches internal diameter. I can barely conceal my surprise – surely there must be safety regulations governing the maximum load a man may carry? He reveals that there are. Or rather, there are supposed to be. He and his fellow shipyard workers were required to attend a safety course before they began work, where they were explicitly told that the maximum weight that one man could carry was 25 kilograms. This reflects the standard industry rule.
I am confused. Couldn’t – and more importantly, shouldn’t – Shahadat have reminded his supervisor of the 25-kilogram limit on the load that he was asked to carry? At the very least, shouldn’t he have asked for assistance? He laughs, a piquant mix of bitterness at the reality of a worker’s life and sympathy for the naivete in my question. “[He] will say, ‘You, young man, why can you only carry 20 kg? Thin man carry – you cannot. Why?’”
Sitting close by and listening in, a fellow workman, Monirul, chips in and confirms that this is nothing out of the ordinary. When he raised similar concerns at his worksite, his “boss also not happy… Some carry 50 kg”.
Two metres after picking up the 35-kilogram pipe, Shahadat lost his balance and went tumbling down a staircase. As he fell, the metal tubing that served as a weak barricade pierced his mouth, broke a tooth, and drew blood. As he landed on the ground, the pipe he had been carrying came crashing onto his left leg and back. Co-workers who heard the tumble came running. Eventually, “after five to ten minutes”, his supervisor arrived at the scene. His fellow workmen were worried – “man injured… you better take him to hospital”, they urged the supervisor. The supervisor expressed reluctance. Ultimately, to placate the men, he gave in, saying to Shahadat, “Wait… Boss will take you to the hospital”.
He never did. Instead, Shahadat was given some first aid at the shipyard, then sent to his dormitory to rest. He wasn’t seen by a doctor, not even to assess the extent of his injuries, never mind treatment.
However, pay day was near. On 9 December, as soon as he received his salary, he made his own way to hospital, hard-earned money in hand.
Says Alex Au, TWC2 vice-president. “He shouldn’t have needed to wait till pay day. The employer has a legal duty and moral responsibility to ensure prompt and sufficient medical care. Its failure to provide is inexcusable.
“It should be stressed as well,”he adds, “that under the law the employer should reimburse whatever Shahadat had to pay himself for treatment.”
Following the accident, Shahadat attempted to raise the issue of the breach of safety regulations with his superiors. His supervisor was quick to deny any direct involvement in the accident, his guilt morphing into anger. The supervisor heatedly retorted, “I never said that! Who asked you to carry 35 kg?!” Shahadat glances down at the table, shifting uncomfortably as he recounts how his “[supervisor’s] face was all black colour”.
Shahadat’s Micawberish hopes of creating a better life have suffered a major setback. Instead of finding ‘opportunities’ in Singapore, he has found pain, disappointment and frustration. The worst aspect of this situation is that it is not at all unique. Hundreds of Shahadats continue to have their safety sacrificed at the altar of efficiency everyday, in the name of maximising profit.