By Daniel Ling
“Driver put all my baju (clothes) in bag, tell me, ‘Boss say, tomorrow go Bangladesh for two month. [If] you no go, boss work permit cutting’”.
Hossen Murad, 26, was still recovering from a serious workplace injury. Amid mounting medical bills here, his employer had sought to pressure him into returning to Bangladesh to recover. Hossen feared that if he complied, his work permit would be cancelled soon after returning home, leaving him without a job to return to. So, he ran away from his dormitory with just the clothes on his back. That was seven months ago.
Hossen first came to Singapore in September 2013. It was a financially risky endeavour; like many, his family had incurred a massive 800,000 taka ($14,000) debt to secure his employment here, and based on his monthly remittance of about $300, it would take roughly four years to pay it off.
Then, just fifteen months into his job, he fell five metres hurting his back and a finger, and was rushed to hospital in an ambulance. The injuries were serious enough to warrant about 105 days’ medical leave in total. Tonight, speaking with him at TWC2’s free meals programme, Hossen tells me he has been operated on. He shows me a deep scar running the length of his left index finger. Despite the surgery, he is unable to bend it fully, and complains that his back still hurts.
Naturally, he is worried about the consequences of his injury on his family’s ability to pay the debt. His father is a poor farmer in Bangladesh. “If I now go back Bangladesh, my father mother die”, he says.
Then one day, about seventeen days after the accident, as Hossen was returning to his dormitory, he found all his belongings packed up by the company driver, an Indian national named Balaji. This took him by surprise and he asked what was going on. That was when he learned that the boss was repatriating him to Bangladesh. It was euphemistically put as a form of home leave to help him recover — “go Bangladesh two month, see Bangladesh doctor”, because “if in Singapore, many money” — but the pretence of good intentions was undermined by the threat that if Hossen didn’t go, his work permit would be cancelled.
Hossen protested, “Why go Bangladesh? All pain, operation already, but everywhere still pain.”
He refused to go. Instead he engaged a lawyer to help him with his case. He also reported the attempt at premature repatriation to the Ministry of Manpower.
Had Hossen been gullible or cowed enough to acquiesce to his boss’ demand, his return to Bangladesh would have precluded his right to medical treatment and disability compensation under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA). Having dodged that bullet though, his troubles are far from over. With relations with his boss the way they are, complications may have developed over his access to follow-up treatment at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. To date, Hossen has paid $350 to the hospital, but reckons there is a further $3,500 outstanding. “I no working I how can pay?” he laments.
Strictly speaking, the employer should be paying the medical bills, but in Hossen’s case, MOM has yet to rule that the accident was work-related. Until MOM does so, the employer can suspend paying for medical treatment under WICA.
Says Alex Au, TWC2 treasurer: “It is very unfair to the worker to have the hospital suspend his appointments because the employer has not settled earlier bills. The root cause seems to be MOM still not ruling this as a work-related accident after seven months. If, as Hossen says, he was sent by ambulance from the workplace to hospital, it’s hard to see why an early determination cannot be made. Isn’t it obvious enough that the accident occurred at work?”
More immediately, Hossen now has to rent a bed outside the dormitory. I ask how he pays for this, and he replies sheepishly, “Sometimes friend borrow, sometimes lawyer borrow.” He doesn’t seem to have recovered his belongings either. When I ask what belongings he currently has, he replies, pointing to his shirt, “together this one, 3 baju (shirts)”.
He is also owed wages for his last ten days of employment, as well as some $400 from “savings money” his employer had illegally deducted from his monthly salary over fifteen months. Furthermore, he reports that he was paid only the basic rate whenever he worked overtime, in contravention of the law stipulating that overtime work is to be paid for at 1.5 times the basic hourly rate.
Unfortunately, his salary papers were among the things he left behind when he fled his dormitory. Alex shakes his head and remarks, “Without documentary evidence, it will be very difficult for him to prove such claims to MOM.”
I wish Hossen well at the end of the interview, but it is probably cold comfort for him. Injured and in debt, it appears likely that he will return to Bangladesh worse off than when he came, regardless of the outcome of his various claims.