By Ranjana Raghunathan

I ask Balasubramanian Mangaleswaran if he requested for medical treatment from his employer right after injuring his leg. He replies, “I asked them immediately, they just said that they would not pay for it.” He was told, “you must take care of it yourself.”

balasubramanian_mangaleswaran_law2This is against the law (see box at right).

Three months after arriving in Singapore, Mangaleswaran, 42, had a fall while working within a ship on 30 December 2014. He recalls, “I fell while cleaning the engine, which is on the slope. There is no place to hold. I slipped and fell; the left foot was swollen for a week.” What he didn’t know then, but would find out later, was that the knee was also affected.

Explaining more of the background, he adds, “The slope is very slippery… When washing, oil and water mix and the extra water needs to be pumped. On that day, the pump did not work. I informed it to the supervisor, but he asked me to clean it anyway. I slipped and fell.”

The employer not only made him work when it was unsafe to do so, they also failed to follow the protocol at the shipyard when injuries take place. “The shipyard office must be informed when injuries take place, but my employer did not inform them.” The request for medical attention was met with a refusal. He was not given any first-aid either. Since he did not have any money to seek treatment on his own, all he could do was to apply Tiger Balm to soothe the pain. He never went to a doctor that day. “They just sent me back to the dorm, along with the other workers, at 5 pm in the evening.”

The pain persisted for days. On the third day, he asked his employer again for medical attention. Upon much debate, he was given S$100 to seek medical treatment — it is not clear whether this would be treated as a salary advance. “The doctor in the clinic gave me an oil and 2 days MC [medical leave certificate] for S$50.”

Salary frustrations

Mangaleswaran shares the exploitative conditions under which many like him are made to work. “I earned S$32 in my first month working here, because there was no work to do for more than two weeks in that month. The next month I earned only S$100, which was much lower than what was agreed in my contract. But I did not know that I would not be paid if the company did not have work for me on some days.

balasubramanian_mangaleswaran_law1This too is against the law.

It is vastly different from his experience in his first job in Singapore, from 2008 to 2010. That company had regular work for him, gave him accommodation in a hostel and paid his salary in a timely manner. The company had a vehicle for transporting the workers too. “With overtime pay, I was able to repay the 1.5 lakhs [approx. S$3,000] loan that I took for agent fee within a few months.”

From 2010 to 2014, Mangaleswaran worked as a mason in India. Then he decided to return to work in Singapore, hoping for better income. Now feeling disappointed, he says, “Twelve workers were made to stay on one floor in an HDB block in Yishun. There was a van, but it would take only the first ten who showed up in the morning at the pickup point.” Even getting to the shipyard carried no assurance of work. “We went days without work, turning up at the shipyard and returning at the end of the day. For days without work, we were not paid a salary. At the end of the month, we got the minimum salary after deduction for room rent.” He compares this experience with his previous employment in Singapore, where the employer allowed the workers to rest when they were ill. “So we did not feel like taking MC for small illnesses, and were motivated to work,” he says.

This shipyard job was different. After the accident, and knowing that if he did not work, he would not be paid, he recounts, “I did not want to lose out more, so I tried to turn up at work after the injury. But it was difficult. The ship… must climb 100 steps. It was very painful.”

Getting to hospital is to lose the job

Unable to bear the pain from his injury, Mangaleswaran borrowed some money and decided to seek treatment from Khoo Teck Puat hospital. An X-ray revealed a crack in his knee. He received fourteen days’ medical leave. I ask him how his employer responded. He replies, coming back to the inescapable problem of money, “I told him I find it difficult to work with the injury. I do not have money for food.”

According to Mangaleswaran, the boss took the position that each person should fend for himself. “He [the boss] asked me, ‘Did we not work and come up in life?’”

Then the boss signalled that he would be sending Mangaleswaran back to India. “He told me to ‘please get going…’ and showed me the door.”

Mangaleswaran then decided to leave his company and job. He says, “I have seen other workers who have left the company. They were never let go easily, even when there was no work. They were made to wait for months and the employer used to take S$3,000 from the workers to leave. So I decided to leave and file a claim through a lawyer.”

balasubramanian_mangaleswaran_wica3However, all would not go according to plan for Mangaleswaran. The lawyer at first refused to take on his case because there was no record of the injury, and he was not taken to the doctor on the day he fell. Moreover, when the lawyer called his employer, the company denied that Mangaleswaran’s injury occurred at the workplace.

Fortunately, he had other workers and witnesses who agreed to testify about the accident at the shipyard. On the day of the injury, six workers and one supervisor had been present. With the witnesses’ testimony and the lawyer’s assistance, Mangaleswaran has filed a claim with the Ministry of Manpower.

It’s been ten months since the accident. The case is still wending its way through MOM’s work injury compensation system. He’s been without income and faces mounting debt in India.

His employer does not house him anymore. He now stays with a “thambi” [younger brother] who is from a neighbouring village in Nathakulam, his place of origin in India.

I feel an urgent need to respond to the injustice he continues to battle today. I am at a loss for words, I fumble in my Tamil, seeking a silver lining in the dark cloud, and perhaps memories of home and family would soothe his pain. I ask him about his family. “I have an elder brother, two elder sisters, one younger sister who is working in Madras [Chennai] and mother. My father died. I also have a wife, one son and one daughter who is in college.” He has one brother in Rameswaram [neighbouring district], with whom he shared about his challenges in Singapore. “I asked him not to tell my family”, he says, looking down. I look on, dazed in my thoughtlessness, hoping that his ordeal will end soon.