By Chang Ya Lan
Even in good health, a migrant worker does not enjoy the pleasure of a home in Singapore. Dormitory space is far from equivalent to what we take for granted: a place of rest and relaxation after a long, tiring day at work; a shell of privacy where rude and menacing people don’t come barging in.
Come injury or illness, and home — as we understand it — takes on an immeasurable quality. It is where the mind is momentarily released from the burden of the daily stress at work in order to focus on getting better. Sarder Mohammad Rasel, however, experienced the opposite. His not-home dormitory became even more stressful an environment when he was injured.
Up till 7 November 2014, he had no serious difficulty with the accommodation provided to him by his employer, a water-proofing contractor, despite the barest of basics and no privacy at all. He shared the dorm room with 14 other workers.
But that day, as Rasel was prying open a “chemical bucket” with a pen knife, the knife suddenly slipped, slicing into his index finger. The cut was so deep that his supervisor brought him to hospital where he was given two months of medical leave.
That meant that he could rest quietly in the dorm while his room-mates went out to work in the day.
The peace was not enjoyed for long. A mere fifteen days into his medical leave, his supervisor came into the dormitory and ordered him back to work. When Rasel tried to explain that his finger was still “no good”, his supervisor threatened to send him back to Bangladesh if he did not do as told. Like almost all foreign workers in Singapore, Rasel had paid a large sum of money to an agent for his current job. If he were to be sent back, he would be $2,000 in debt; worse still, in the words of Ramzan, who was helping to bridge the communication barrier between Rasel and me, “If he go back Bangladesh, family die.”
Rasel managed to stand his ground that occasion. He wanted to let his finger recover as fully as possible before heading back out to his physically strenuous job. After all, his doctor had considered it medically appropriate to rest the hand for two months in order to heal properly.
But when the supervisor repeated his order a subsequent day, again telling Rasel that he’d be sent home if he disobeyed, Rasel found himself in the same situation as many injured workers before him. Staying in the dormitory became untenable; it was now abundantly clear that he had to move out.
“Supervisor gave [me] pressure when [I] stayed in,” he explains.
He is now staying with a friend in Little India, and they split the rent every month. Rasel could have saved on the money that now goes into the rent by remaining in the rent-free accommodation provided by his company, but it had become too stressful and insecure a place.
He has since filed a work injury claim at the Ministry of Manpower. After his Work Permit was cancelled by the employer, he’s been put on a Special Pass. This enables him to stay on legally in Singapore till his compensation claim is settled. But a Special Pass does not allow him to seek employment. In a sense, he is ‘trapped’, with expenses to be paid for and no income.
Rasel shows me his injured finger. A part of its skin is white and flaky and it forms a considerable line along the side of his finger. There might have been nerve damage too, for he has lost his sense of touch. “Finger no feeling,” he says.
[Top picture is for illustration only. It does not depict the dorm where Rasel stayed in.]