By Seema Punwani
Uzzal’s world stopped on 28 Oct 2013. It was the day he found himself locked in a room, alone, injured and his documents taken away from him. What could he, a foreign worker from Bangladesh, have possibly done to warrant this kind of inhumane treatment? He had an accident at the shipyard he worked in. An accident. Something that was beyond his control and in no way his fault.
Lying in a small windowless room, various thoughts passed through Uzzal’s head: What will happen to my job? How will I now send money home to my wife and aging parents? Why am I locked up here instead of being in my dorm with my friends? However the thought that troubled him most was: Why was my Work Permit taken away? followed by the most dreaded one: Does this mean I am being sent back?
Being sent back to one’s home country in the first few months of employment is perhaps a fate worse than death. At this time foreign workers are most vulnerable as they have not yet discharged the agent’s commission, let alone built up any savings. During this period of extreme vulnerability, workers simply endure all manner of indignities and unreasonable demands by employers, just so they keep the job.
Uzzal too had to endure. But now piled on as well, he has pain in his back and left knee, and confinement in this room that looks like a jail cell.
His accident took place at 8.30am in a shipyard in Sembawang. While walking on a ‘kayu’ (wooden plank) and carrying one end of a 6-meter long pipe, his foot fell through a hole. The pipe he was carrying came crashing down on him. He was in pain for six long hours before he was taken to the hospital. In those hours he had to recount his accident to his supervisor, who was angry at him for having an accident, the shipyard manager and the safety officers.
All this while the only medical attention he received was some Panadol and a muscle relaxant spray. He was then driven to the hospital by the lorry driver — “A tall, big body, mean looking man, with writing [tattoos] all over his arm and body”, who doubled up as an ‘enforcer’ i.e. someone hired to keep the workers in line. To Uzzal’s surprise, the lorry driver did not take him to the hospital immediately. He was first taken to his dorm in Woodlands where he was ordered to pack all his belongings. At this time his Work Permit and papers were also taken from him.
At the hospital the doctor took an X-Ray, gave medicines and advised ‘light duty’. Light duty meant Uzzal had to go to work the next day. Maybe it was a good thing, for that meant he would continue earning his salary.
However what happened next was unimaginable. From the hospital, the lorry driver didn’t take him back to his usual dorm, but to another, deserted, dormitory and put him in a room with security just outside guarding his ‘cell’. He was strictly instructed to stay there. When Uzzal enquired why he could not go back to his usual dorm and if he could have his papers back, the lorry driver threatened him. “You think I am only lorry driver? You don’t know who I am? You just eat, sleep and stay in this room. Don’t even try to step out”.
Night fell and Uzzal had no choice but to close his eyes. Sleep eluded him. Visions of being deported kept replaying in his mind. The plight of his family back home troubled him. Finally the exhaustion of the day’s events caught up and he feel asleep. In the morning Uzzal called his friend, who reconfirmed his fears — if his Work Permit was taken away, in all likelihood he was going to be sent back. Uzzal spent the day in a daze, fretting over his plight.
That evening he decided he had to take matters into his own hands. Seizing a moment when the guard was not observing, he stepped out of the room. Uzzal softly walked towards the barbed-wire fence, pain in his leg from the injury notwithstanding, and crawled under it, scratching his hands in the process. He kept going. Away from his captors. And from his only source of income. “God helped me that day” is all Uzzal can say about his escape.
This freedom however came at a price. For a year now, Uzzal has been jobless, having been put on a Special Pass by the Ministry of Manpower, a condition of which is that he must not work. Uzzal manages to survive thanks to the support and kindness of his friends and the community. His leg and back has healed somewhat although whether there is any permanent impairment is not yet known. His work injury claim is still in progress. He continues to live in the fervent hope that he will go back to his family soon… but not without the compensation he feels he deserves.