By William Chin

The boss wasn’t happy to see his employee presenting a medical leave certificate. “Why you go see doctor? No (limb) drop off, no broken,” was his reaction.

As Humayun Mohammad Enu tells it, he had to get his own medical treatment, and until now has not been reimbursed despite medical care being the employer’s responsibility by law.

Moreover, the injury was sustained in the first place because the employer ignored work safety rules laid down by the Ministry of Manpower.

TWC2 Treasurer Alex Au encapsulates the issue here: “I often hear people say that if only we took more trouble to inform workers of their rights, it would make a big difference. But what Humayun’s story reveals is that such a ‘solution’ is too naive.”

Humayun has been here for eight years. Through his earlier job, he has learnt what is safe and what is not safe. He is also fully aware what an employer’s obligations are. Yet, as Alex points out, “his economic circumstances made it impossible for him, in this recent job, to assert his rights.” The bottom line: “Knowledge of your rights only goes so far. Employers’ economic power can trump it.”

Humayun’s 2014 job was with a small renovation company. At the end of the working day on 7 October 2014, an old toilet bowl that had been removed from the apartment they were remodelling had to be disposed. Humayun was tasked with putting it into a dumpster. His grip slipped as he tried to tip it in.

“Toilet bowl also drop, me also drop,” he recalls. He hurt his back; sharp pieces of broken china gashed his foot.

“It weigh more than 60 kg,” he tells me, though this may be an exaggeration. A websearch indicates that toilet bowls are more likely to weigh 30-40 kg. Nevertheless, it exceeds the Ministry of Manpower’s safety guidelines, where the maximum weight for a person to carry is 25kg.

Alex interjects: “Why you never ask your boss for extra worker to help you?”

“I many times asked (for) second man,” Humayun replies agitatedly. “Boss says, ‘I (the employer) can, why you (Humayun) cannot?'”

He was given Panadol by “Boss madam” (the employer’s wife) but was not sent to a doctor.

Unable to withstand the pain, he visited a clinic the following day at his own expense, incurring a medical bill of about $50 and given three days of sick leave. Returning to his employer to tender the medical leave, he was met with a scolding.  “You go, go, I don’t want to see you,” was how his boss eventually dismissed his request for reimbursement, according to Humayun.

Careful to ensure that the employer would have no reason to think he was absconding from his job, Humayun went to the office daily each of the following three days to clock in, even though he could be resting in his room.

A few days later, with the pain not subsiding, he went to Changi Hospital. He borrowed money from friends to do so. There, he was given a further 36 days of medical leave.

“How much did you have to pay at Changi Hospital?” asks Alex.

Humayun explains that what the hospital did was to scan his Work Permit. It appears that they know to bill the employer directly.

However, to better diagnose what’s wrong in his back, he has been advised to get an MRI scan. This requires the employer to provide a Letter of Guarantee since Humayun cannot afford the cost of an MRI on his own.

Humayun has worked in Singapore for more than eight years (in a different job), and is clearly aware of his rights and safety protocols. When the more recent employer failed to provide him with basic safety equipment, Humayun purchased his own.

“I buy my own safety shoe, ear piece (ear plugs), and use T-shirt to cover mouth,” says Humayun, voicing his frustration over the employer’s failure of responsibility.

Underlining his point, Humayun mentions that there was once another Bangladeshi worker in the same renovation company but he lasted only a month. This man quit when he couldn’t take the boss’ attitude and irresponsibility any more.

“This man, he lose many thousand dollars,” explains Humayun of the “agent fee” that the worker wrote off when he resigned.

However, being the sole breadwinner to support his wife, two children and a father in his sixties, he couldn’t do likewise. Humayun stayed on the job even though he was aware he was being exploited.

But now he is out of work nonetheless. It’s been eight months since the accident, and his Work Permit has been cancelled. The Special Pass that allows him to stay on in Singapore to complete his medical treatment and pursue his compensation claim forbids him from seeking employment. He is financially desperate.

When I ask what he most wants, he replies simply, “I want to work.”

“Accidents are avoidable,” says Alex, “if there is meticulous adherence to safety rules.”

“But in a landscape where workers, despite knowing their rights, are disempowered because of their economic circumstances and some employers abuse their power to override safety, then society must look to its conscience and act to protect the vulnerable.”

Societal conscience has a primary channel in the form of State agencies, Alex adds. Laws should be enforced and stern examples made of irresponsible employers. “The question is: Does MOM play its role fully?”