By Samantha Ege

On 14 November 2014, Sarker Babu Sukanto should have been preparing to spend the night in hospital.  Moments earlier, he had suffered a fall while at a working site in Kallang.  The accident left him with severe pain across his right shoulder, down his back and around his leg.  He recalls that in the immediate aftermath of the fall, “company driver, another two worker and me go hospital straight.”  And so that evening, Sarker lay in a woozy state induced by injected painkillers.  As we sit at one of the tables at TWC2’s free meals programme, Sarker re-enacts his condition slumping into his chair, rolling his head back and letting his arms go limp.  With him being in this sort of state at the time, Sarker was certainly not expecting to be carted off at three o’clock in the morning and summoned to work against the doctor’s wishes.  Yet, this was exactly what happened.

Sarker sits up to explain: “Doctor say,  ‘sleeping here.’ [you should spend the night here.]” But the company objected and refused to let him be warded, sending the driver over to discharge him.  “Driver come, he say,  ‘tomorrow working’… I say,  ‘no cannot working, [I have] MC’.”

But the boss would hear none of that. “Boss say, ‘go work’.”

The “MC” to which Sarker refers is the Medical Leave Certificate that granted him three days of paid leave. Sarker recognised that this was his lawful entitlement and stayed put in his dorm. He did not go to work the next day.

I ask about the boss’ reaction to the doctor giving him three days’ rest. “What did your boss say?”

“Very angry boss,” Sarker tells me.

Injured? Take the bus

Sarker had a follow-up appointment booked three days later for the 17 November.  The pain had not yet fully subsided since his initial visit. He describes the discomfort with the succinctness of: “very pain, cannot sleep.”

However, his boss seemed to have formed his own prognosis, dictating to Sarker, “Cannot go, you okay already.”  Nonetheless, Sarker remained steadfast, unswayed by his boss’ commands.  He insisted on going to the doctor. His boss would not allow the company driver to take Sarker to the hospital appointment.  The most he offered was the dismissive suggestion that Sarker should “follow bus”. He thus went alone by public transport.

At this visit, Sarker received seven more days of medical leave. “Boss very angry,” the worker reports. “He say ‘Cannot. You already holiday!’”  Sarker says this waving his hand in emphatic imitation of his boss’ flagrant disregard.

There are times when Sarker struggles to find the words he needs to articulate his position, or to decipher my questions.  The first time we run into difficulties with the language barrier, he looks over his shoulder to beckon his friend, saying, “I English not good, call friend help me.”  His friend sits with us for the remainder of the interview, helping us to overcome the linguistic barriers.

We return to the topic of his medical leave, which Sarker explains has subsequently been extended to 7 June 2015.  Yet by 4 December 2014, Sarker would find his work permit cancelled by the employer.

Under the law, the employer is still responsible for upkeep and maintenance — bureaucratese for room and board — until the worker goes home, and for medical leave wages too, but, says Sarker, “They stop the money [in] March 2015.  Three month, no pay.  I borrow the money [for] rent, food.  Now company fight.  No give salary, medical leave.  I have lawyer but not use, no say anything.”

Breathing sawdust

During the course of our conversation, it becomes clear that the disregard Sarker’s boss showed towards his employee was evident even before the accident.  Prior to his work permit being cancelled, Sarker’s employer provided accommodation that on the surface might have appeared convenient, but in reality was hazardous, unethical, and as you may have guessed, illegal.  Sarker lived in the company factory, located in Northlink Building.  He and the other carpenters worked on the lower level, and slept and ate on a deck or mezzanine above in rooms that were built with plywood. The air was cloudy with sawdust.

Sarker has spent more that $15,000 of his savings to come to Singapore from his native Bangladesh.  This is the total of what he has had to pay to agents to obtain jobs on the two occasions he has sought work here, and the five-month electrician’s training course required for his employment.  He has hardly recovered this money through work — he started on his second job only four months before the accident ended it — and his family has seen no net gain from his working abroad.

“Who is at home?” I ask.

“Mother, wife, two son, one daughter…”

His voice cracks on the word daughter.  His eyes redden under a watery glaze.  Sarker hastily looks away.  His friend looks at me, breaks the silence with three words that contain an abundance of truth: “Sometimes it’s hard.”