By Ranjana Raghunathan
“Oh you share your name with the wonderful Tamil music director,” I try to break the ice as he nods, unimpressed at my remark. Elayaraja is from Killaipichavaram, a village near Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu, India. He was earning about 10,000 Rupees per month (around $200) in India, from fishing. I ask him what brought him to Singapore, and he replies, “Many from my village, at least 50, work abroad in places like Singapore, Dubai, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Two people from my village were in Singapore, so I got a passport to try to secure a job here.”
His future employer, a ship-painting company, was just starting out in 2011 and needed many workers. The company owner, an ethnic Chinese Singaporean, went to India along with an employment agent approved by Ministry of Manpower (MOM), to recruit the first 20 employees. Elayaraja was one of them. He exclaims, “I started the company, it has now grown to 150 people!”
“What was the hiring process? How was the interview?” I ask. He tells me that over 100 people from many villages across the state of Tamil Nadu gathered in a posh hotel in Chennai, for interviews with the employer. “The interviews went on from 10 am to 1 pm, and by 3 pm they announced who were selected. They saw if we were fit to perform the job, if we had any experience in painting. They even asked us why we want to work in Singapore, whether we had any financial problems etc.”
For this interview, Elayaraja had travelled overnight on a rickety bus for six hours, from Killaipichavaram to Chennai, arriving in the capital city early that morning, along with 20 others from his village, three of whom would be selected later. He went to his friend’s hostel room to freshen up and got ready for the interview in the hotel. He had his passport with him, which he handed over to the agent upon his selection for the visa procedure. “The agent also took 1.5 lakhs (approx $3,500) from me. I had to borrow that money from friends in my village,” he says.
Elayaraja’s family in India comprises two older sisters, one younger sister, his father and mother. At his time of arrival in Singapore, his sisters were unmarried and his family needed money for their weddings. Elayaraja accepted the job for a basic pay of $550 per month, and worked tremendously hard, with lots of overtime, to earn about $1,000 per month. It has taken him almost four years to repay the loan he took from his friends and to contribute to his sisters’ weddings. “Each wedding cost about 7-8 lakh rupees (approx $15,000).”
All of them are now married, “but I did not attend any of them,” he adds, “to save the airfare money and utilize it for the wedding expenses.”
These are just the most striking of the sacrifices he made for his family.
And then, bad luck.
“Soon after that [i.e. managing to pay back all he had borrowed from friends], I had an accident at work.”
On 26 January 2015, a 270 kg plastering port fell on his right hand and cut his fingers. He was rushed to a hospital in an ambulance, along with pieces of his fingers placed in ice. “My fingers could not be set again. I had a surgery, after which I spent a week in the hospital. It has been four months now, and I am still healing.”
He has already been on medical leave for four months. “My employer allowed me to stay in the hostel accommodation provided by them for three months but could not help me with the insurance claim that I deserve for this accident,” he says, explaining how the relationship deteriorated. Eventually, he felt he had to move out of company accommodation.
It is not clear what compensation was offered to him through the Work Injury Compensation (WICA) process, though he mentions a figure of $15,000. From official records we notice that he has since withdrawn his WICA claim, and is now relying on a lawyer to pursue a common law claim. “My life is gone. I deserve more money than what insurance offered me,” he explains.
His Singapore experience, good for a four years, is ending with bitterness. “I will not come back here!” he says.
I try to reassure him for all his hard-work over four years, which paid off the loans and for all his sisters’ weddings. “But, as soon as I paid all that off, my hand is gone!”
And then he reveals yet another disappointment.
“I was about to be married last month, this injury has cancelled my wedding too!” When I probe to clarify if he meant postponement, he stares into my eyes as he says, “No, she is now married to someone else. Her family and my family both felt it was best for us not to get married.”
I offered, rather hesitantly, “I am sorry to hear that. Did you know her from before?” He replies, staring at his finger stubs, “yes, we are distant relatives. Who would marry me?”
I take down his details for record, and as I write his date of birth on my notebook, I ask surprised, “Is it your birthday today?” He is unsure what day it is, and nods reluctantly when I tell him. I wish him happy birthday and share this information with others sitting at our table too. Everyone joins in to wish him a happy birthday, and we celebrate by sharing cookies. I pass him a donated box of cookies for his 28th birthday, as he walks away to get his dinner. His words “I will not come back here!” play in my head again as the image of his hand reminds me of many dreams, built and crushed.