A noticeable number of workers who have been injured at work lose over two years of their lives waiting for resolution of their cases. Typically, their medical treatment is largely over within months, but the compensation process (for permanent disability they may have suffered) can drag on for another year or longer. In the meantime, they are forbidden to work by the Ministry of Manpower. They are stuck in Singapore, penniless, while their families back home struggle without a breadwinner.
By Chang Ya Lan
In the span of an hour, I meet two men with similar stories about spending two years in Singapore, in limbo. Both Md Ekbal Hossan Nasir Khalifa (pictured above) and Mohammad Samsul Alam Md Hazi Momim Ullah sustained injuries when working on construction sites; both Ekbal and Samsul required many hospital treatments; and both Ekbal and Samsul were asked by their employers to foot the hospital bills first, and they would later be reimbursed by their employers.
That is where the similarities ended. How their stories eventually panned out diverge sharply from each other: one is ending happily, while the other is left in frustration, despair and mounting debts. One secured closure; the other is still waiting, perhaps in vain, for a solution.
There was no clearer indication of the divergence in the outcome of the two men’s stories than in their respective demeanours. When he sits down to tell me his story, Ekbal is relaxed and carefree, smiling easily, laughing readily. And it is no wonder: after two years of hospitalisation, many expensive treatments and borrowing money from his family in Bangladesh to pay for his treatments, his employer had finally settled all outstanding payments with him, and he is free to go home.
Two years ago on 6 September 2013, while doing construction work on Jurong Island, Ekbal fell three metres from a platform, weighed down with scaffolding and heavy cables. A strong wind had knocked him off-balance. He sustained injuries in his left leg and back, and he was sent to the National University Hospital where he was hospitalised and received many treatments for his injuries.
“All everything I paid because boss didn’t want to pay,” Ekbal says. “Later [boss] said, ‘You pay all everything money, later I pay.’” Left without much of a choice, Ekbal footed his own hospital bills; but when the bills came up to be too much for him to fund out of his savings, he sought help from his family in Bangladesh – an ironic turn of events, considering that the whole purpose of Ekbal working in Singapore was to support his family back home and give them a better life.
Fortunately for Ekbal, his employer lived up to his word. “Boss settled MC money, hospital, salary, everything.” Workers use the term ‘MC money’ to mean medical leave wages, which they are entitled to under the Work Injury Compesnation Act. Ekbal looks pleased as he says this; perhaps he is still floating from finally finding closure to a problem that had plagued him for two years.
Also two years of waiting, but this one’s going nowhere
For Samsul, however, his situation could not be more different. Samsul’s eyes are downcast, his brows furrowed; it takes effort for him to crack a smile. On 16 January 2013, Samsul fell down during some maintenance renovation and he was sent to the hospital immediately. He had injured his back and he was given about seven to eight months’ worth of medical time off from work. When Samsul contacted his employer to inform him of his situation, his employer said to him, “Pay first, when get insurance money, give [you] the money.”
This sounded exactly like what Ekbal experienced… except in Samsul’s case, his employer disappeared six months later. The company simply could not be contacted.
“I cannot contact boss,” Samsul (left) says with clear agitation in his voice. “I complained to MOM [the Ministry of Manpower] many times. Mobile, email, no answer. MOM and lawyer contacted boss, also no answer. And my MC and hospital money, boss never give me.” Samsul’s back injury was serious enough to warrant repeat visits to the hospital and follow-up checks, including an MRI scan which is still required more than two years after his accident, scheduled for 22 June 2015. According to Samsul, the hospital told him, “No guarantee letter, no MRI.” Samsul tried to turn to the MOM for help, only to be met with yet another dead end – the MOM advised him to ask his lawyers to pay for his MRI. Unsurprisingly, his lawyers declined. “Lawyer says give one letter to hospital, but I never see the letter,” Samsul adds.
His employer has been missing for about a year and a half; during this period, Samsul was out of a job and living on whatever he’d saved of his salary, which totalled to about S$2,100. Now, that amount has been completely wiped out. He borrows money from his friends in Singapore and eats either at home when his friend cooks, or at the soup kitchens run by TWC2. He rents a bunk in Serangoon for about S$230 a month, and he seems to be lucky enough to have a landlord who hasn’t evicted him yet. “I tell landlord, house money later pay,” he says.
Samsul feels like he is living a nightmare, and all he wants to do now is to go home. He doesn’t even seem to care about getting treatment for his nagging back pain, which he describes as “sometimes a lot, sometimes less”. Still, he feels the pain after walking for five to ten minutes – a sad state of affairs for a once able-bodied 33-year-old, who is likely to continue to need to work as a manual labourer regardless of whether he remains in Singapore or goes home to Bangladesh: seven years ago, his family sold their family-run grocery shop so that Samsul would have money to come to Singapore to work.
For now, Samsul’s fate is frustratingly uncertain, and he bears the burden of an entire family on his shoulders. Although he tried to hide his predicament from his family at first, his friend revealed Samsul’s secret to his family six months later – and now Samsul is worried about his family worrying because they have enough problems of their own. Samsul is the oldest son; he has a younger brother who is studying and six older sisters. One of his brothers-in-law has passed away, and two other brothers-in-law are “not good”. His father is 94 and in poor health; his mother is 70, and her health is also declining.
“I feel very bad,” Samsul says. “More than two and a half years already. I want go home.”
Indeed, it is hard to understand a system that traps people like Samsul in limbo for more than two years, drifting about aimlessly and wasting their productive years. As Alex Au, TWC2 Treasurer, says, “Why stay around in Singapore? The company may never be found!” However, he also points out, after a little checking, that the company had bought insurance for Samsul. The question however is whether, now that the company has vanished with no one to do the paperwork, there are other channels for MOM to insist that the insurer pays up. At this juncture, that is the outcome Samsul is hoping for.