By Saw Suhui
When I first spot Rahabul, he is standing at a corner of a coffee shop, using a flimsy piece of tissue paper to cover the wound on his hand as his friend helps to translate his account of his unfortunate incident to a fellow volunteer.
“Pain,” he says of his wound.
Rahabul, 33, worked for a shipyard company about seven years now, but left company accommodation recently. Seven years is not a short time, but loyalty to the company did not save Rahabul from a common fate that befalls many transient workers: accident, followed by a general neglect and disregard of his well-being on the company’s part.
It was the first time Rahabul has had a big accident like this. It happened in the afternoon of 3 October 2015, just three weeks before our interview. He was cutting a metal plate when the gas pipe exploded and burnt his hand badly. Soon after, the company lorry came and took him to Mount Alvernia Hospital. There, he found out that his “skin no use” — the burn had damaged his skin — and he needed a skin-grafting operation, which was scheduled for the following day.
I ask him if that meant he was warded for the night.
“Boss don’t want stay hospital,” his friend translates Rahabul’s reply to me, “’cos they charge many.” Rahabul nods vehemently. He was put on the lorry and sent back to the dorm.
Lack of care for his well-being
But that is not his primary problem. It is not what made him abandon company accommodation and seek help from TWC2, but denial of needed medical leave (“MC”) and constant demands that he return to work soon after the operation.
He was given a two-day MC after the operation, but his hand was still in pain beyond those two days. Nonetheless, some time after his MC ended, Rahabul says his boss “force him go work”.
He acknowledges that it was “light duty” work that he was put on, but upon further questioning, I discover that he was not really tasked to do anything but stand around. “I feel headache,” Rahabul recounts as he shakes his head, “standing also pain.”
Says Alex Au, a senior volunteer with TWC2, “Pain is a subjective thing, and it is entirely possible for descriptions to be exaggerated for other purposes.” However, he notes that Rahabul’s wound does look quite raw even 25 days after the skin graft. He can’t fully flex his thumb and fingers either. So maybe we shouldn’t discount his words.
At a follow-up appointment at the hospital, he was further disappointed when he was refused an extension of the medical leave.
Explains Alex: “It is interesting how the worker, in telling his story, puts so much stress on the question of medical leave. By his own account, the employer wasn’t actually asking him to do anything, but hang around. He would be able to rest the hand. Being present at work would also entitle him to salary.” However, he adds, “MCs are also proxy indicators of care and concern; Singaporean employees would be not less upset if these were denied when they feel they should be given medical leave.”
Rahabul then took money out of his own pocket to go to Tan Tock Seng Hospital to check on his injury, as an individual patient, independent of his company or supervisors. At Tan Tock Seng, Rahabul was given altogether fifteen days of MC.
Supervisor-worker dynamic and the culture of fear
Aside from the outline narrative, it’s the little details Rahabul provides that truly reveal what’s going on.
Firstly, these transient workers-patients have none to very little actual contact with the doctors or hospital staff. By default, their boss or supervisors have the say in everything. For example, Rahabul says he had no inkling of what really was being said to the medical staff. It was a “Chinese Chinese talking” between the doctor and his supervisor so he did not understand anything.
By contrast, one thing was made very clear at his second visit. He was denied an extension of his MC because “doctor don’t want give me. Doctor say cannot must consult with boss. He say ‘your boss don’t want, [so] we cannot give’.” Rahabul claims to have a voice recording of this statement by the medical staff.
Continuing, he adds that the decision to keep him on Light Duty status came from the company. “He [doctor] call boss. Boss say light duty, go back work.”
The third insight I gain is when Rahabul tells me he has kept his visits to Tan Tock Seng Hospital a secret from his employer. He explains, “if boss know, he send back.” This fear of employers arbitrarily repatriating a worker is very widespread. Especially when an injury has not completed a course of treatment, repatriation would be extremely disadvantageous to the worker.
But how can he stay on in the dorm, be expected to show up at work — even if “Go standing only. No work.” — and yet steal visits to Tan Tock Seng Hospital for treatment?
“That’s why he run away,” his friend cuts in and concludes, “boss don’t care.”
Writer Sihui’s last point throws much light on what’s going on. Employers’ demand that doctors prescribe ‘light duty’ instead of medical leave is rooted in very calculative aims. ‘Light duty’ makes it possible to insist that workers show up at the workplace at all times. This attendance denies them options to seek alternative medical help, or advice from NGOs, or even to make reports at the Ministry of Manpower.
The last may be employers’ greatest fear: reporting a workplace accident to the authorities. This is key to understanding why Rahabul was not warded overnight at Mt Alvernia Hospital, and why he was only given two days’ MC with no extensions. The law says that any accident with a worker staying more than 24 hours in a hospital or getting more then three days’ MC must be reported to the ministry. Staying under this threshold drives many employers to do what they do.
Making sure that employees don’t have the free time to make reports too is another side to the same motive.