By Ranjana Raghunathan

Vadivelan asks me nervously, “Can I trust these [TWC2 volunteers] people? They asked if I was willing to tell you my story, and I just shared everything with you. But I do not know what will happen. Will I get into more trouble if I share my story? I am entangled in a lot of problems already.”

It is my first day as a TWC2 volunteer. It has just been a week since he enrolled in the Cuff Road Food Programme. Every other volunteer seems to know a lot more than I do, perhaps that’s why he appears to feel comfortable with me and our shared lack of knowledge about the systems he has to navigate. Or maybe it is that we’re speaking in fluent Tamil. “I am from Pondicherry, you?” he smiles through nervous uncertainty.

Vadivelan was a construction worker in the plumbing industry. On 16 March 2015, at 11.30 in the morning, a channel cover fell on his right hand. His manager rushed him to the West Point Hospital for consultation. He was given one day’s medical leave — commonly referred to as ‘MC’ (medical certificate) — and light duty for two days. The doctor also asked him to return the following day for a scan, which highlighted a fracture and an immediate need for surgery. His surgery was completed that night at 10.30 pm. “I got only three days MC. I was on plaster for 15 days, but I was asked to do work”, says Vadivelan. “I could not work for the next four or five days because I was on strong painkillers and felt giddy.”

“How are you now?” I ask. He is under the care of doctors at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH). He is on MC for a week, to be reviewed again on 18 April. He has stopped working. “The supervisor at work forced me to work, but I had to rest my hand too, I was in a lot of pain. I tried to do things with one hand, but could not. So he said he would pay me only if I work and asked me to leave for India if I didn’t comply. I said I would go on medical leave, but they just asked me to quit the job and return to India. How could I? I have a loan of 1.5 lakhs (approx. $3,400) that I paid the agent in India to work here!”

“Could you not use the MC from TTSH to negotiate more medical leave with your employer?”

He remarks, “The employer did not even file a report of my accident with MOM. It is only after I left that I consulted the doctors at TTSH, because the employer works only through West Point Hospital.

Alex Au, TWC2 Treasurer, later explains, “It is mandatory to file an accident report with MOM if the injury is such that it warrants more than three days of medical leave, consecutively or otherwise. In his case, between the three-day MC issued by West Point Hospital and the one week from TTSH, his accident is one which the employer must report to the authorities.”

Continuing, Vadivelan says, “When my manager first took me to the doctor, the doctor did not even speak to me or ask me anything. The manager and doctor spoke in Chinese and I don’t know what transpired.”

TWC2 has come across many workers who report the same. Adds Alex: “We have seen many such cases where the employee is disadvantaged even at the hospital due to language barriers and not having a chance to express the pain of his own body. There is the overbearing presence of the supervisor, manager or boss during consultation.”

With the help of a lawyer, Vadivelan has filed a case to seek compensation for salary owed during medical leave, but in the meantime, he has no income and is in a financial hole. Having left the company accommodation, he now pays $210 per month to rent a bunk in Little India.  I express concern about how he could afford to stay in Singapore without a job, support his family and pay for his medical expenses, to which he responds “In the past, I have heard that my employer threatened employees who filed lawyer report and repatriated them out of Singapore hastily. I was afraid that I might face the same, so I just packed my bags and left.”

He adds, “If they send me away, I can never work in Singapore again. If I get my dues, I can look for other jobs and continue to support my family.”

“He is misinformed; it’s not true,” says Alex. “But how has he come to believe that? Did his lawyer tell him that to bind the client to himself through fear?”

The agent fee debt in India, the salary his family have come to rely on and the pressure of working despite an accident is a heavy burden on his shoulders now, in addition to the injury. Vadivelan has a wife, two children (five-year-old boy and one-year-old girl) and elderly parents who depend on his salary from Singapore. “They must be worried about your health, especially because you are so far away?” I ask. Vadivelan attempts a smile, but his eyes, welling up in tears, betray his fear.

I try to soothe his worries, “things will be fine, don’t worry…” I tear up too, unsure if I can believe what I just said. He smiles. “It is getting late; please do eat your dinner.” He walks away, pausing briefly behind a pillar to wipe his tears and proceeds into the restaurant to exchange his red button for food.