By Sabrina Tay

Cowering in severe pain, Shafiqul lay on the floor of his cell and dialled ‘999’. The police and the ambulance arrived shortly. At the same time, the doors to Shafiqul’s cell unlocked as if by themselves and the guards assigned to watch over him miraculously vanished. Shafiqul was taken to the National University Hospital (NUH). After treatment, it was back to the “dormitory” we’d liken to be a cell. It seems like calling 999 did not help at all.

Md Shafiqul Islam, barely 1.55m tall and not quite 50 kg, worked in a company that does construction work for larger companies in the process industry. On 2 January 2015, he was tasked to help carry steel I-beams. “Supervisor give me job,” he says, explaining how he was directed to shoulder an excessive load. Needless to say, Shafiqul could not take the weight and suffered a back injury.

According to Shafiqul, his supervisor did not inform the safety officer about the incident, shrugging it off instead and telling him that if he mentioned a word, he would be sent back  to Bangladesh. The supervisor also said to Shafiqul, “anything problem call me. What to do, I tell you tomorrow.”

When Shafiqul felt severe pain in his back the next morning, he called his supervisor as advised but was met with an invalid call as his supervisor had gone off to Malaysia.

Dialling an alternative number, he reaching another staff member, Karupin, whose main advice to Shafiqul’s “more pain coming” was : “You go doctor, you sleep, never mind. As long as you pay yourself.”

Made his own way to hospital

At wit’s end, Shafiqul borrowed a little money from his friend and made his way to Alexandra Hospital. He was given one day’s medical leave and light duty for 17 days. He was also given an appointment to see an orthopaedic spine specialist on 9 January.

The day after his visit to Alexandra, vulgarities were hurled at him when he showed his medical certificate to his supervisor. The message was reiterated: he’d lose his job and be sent home if he spoke of the injury to anyone. The supervisor even threw away the medical certificate, said Shafiqul to TWC2.

Shafiqul was fearful. He could not “tahan (bear with)” the pain, yet he still returned to his workstation.

On 9 January, Shafiqul went to see the orthopedic spine specialist at Alexandra. Looking at the X-ray, the news was not good. “Doctor say back bend already”. An MRI examination was arranged and Shafiqul was prescribed medicine and given three days of medical leave.

Once again, the supervisor refused to accept the medical certifcate. In fear of being sent home, Shafiqul continued to report for work.

Up to this point in the Shafiqul’s account, I thought his problems only revolved around an employer who continually threatened and disregarded his pain and medical leave. But worse was to come!

Private prison

29 January, “company men three person” took him from his dormitory in Tuas, to a “dormitory” along Benoi Road. The address provided by Shafiqul (assuming it is correct) indicates a factory, not a licensed dormitory. However, it is not unknown for companies to have holding rooms inside office and factory premises. Shafiqul recalls: “Company men say, you 24 hours in this room, cannot come out”.

He asked  “why lock me?” but the men did not reply. His belongings were taken away from him. There was even someone “attached” to Shafiqul, standing outside his cell to “take care” of him and bring him food at meal times.

The next afternoon, Shafiqul’s “body many problem, gas in stomach” so he asked this “take-care man” to take him to a doctor. There was no response and no help. Lying on the floor in severe pain, Shafiqul dialled 999. The police and the ambulance arrived; the guards assigned to watch over him nowhere to be seen.. Shafiqul was taken to the National University Hospital, hospitalised for a day and then given three days’ medical leave.

After he was discharged, the company took him back to the same cell till his next hospital appointment on 3 February. As Shafiqul describes it, two men and his supervisor would accompany him each time he had a hospital appointment. He was in effect a prisoner.

Employer reluctant to pay for treatment

But first, there was surgery. This took place on 3 February. It almost didn’t happen, for the office was reluctant to pay for his operation. As reported by the worker, only when the doctor said he would inform the Ministry of Manpower did the employer agree to it. After the operation, Shafiqul spent a week in the hospital and was then given light duty for two more weeks. During the period of light duty, the company gave him office duty, but his “take-care man” would take him to and from work every day. This continued from 16 February to 5 March. Shafiqul was not allowed to go anywhere except to the office for work, and back to his cell.

Thankfully, on 5 March, when the “take-care man” went for his smoking break without locking the door, Shafiqul took flight and ran away with the help of a friend from whom he is getting refuge — for the time being. He has found out about TWC2’s free meals programme and comes by regularly.

Is it surprising that such unethical acts can occur in our backyard? Do relevant authorities know of the lengths employers would go to prevent workers from reporting injuries and safety lapses?