“Boss say I must not talking (tell others) how I accident,” Alam recounts of the first hours after his forearm was torn open. “He say I must explain like this: (that) I go canteen to makan (eat), and I fall down there.”

“He tell other workers, nobody must talking.”

But when Alam Mahbubul finally got to the emergency room at two hospitals, he was in no mood to do as told and tell doctors that the accident was all his own fault. “I not care,” he says to me emphatically. “I tell doctor original story, the true one.”

When he finally got to the emergency room, that is. More below.

alam_mahbubul_hauling_waterAlam was standing on an I-beam hauling water out of a big ditch-like hole in the ground at 8:30am on 20 October 2015, when the I-beam titled slightly. It was enough for him to lose his balance, tipping him into the ditch. A metre or so down, his left forearm was caught on some steel plates deeply gashing his forearm. Skin and flesh were torn open. “Bone I can see. Lucky bone not broken. But many, many blood.”

Even so, he thought he was also lucky that he fell towards the steel plate. Inches away were protruding reinforcement bars (rebars). If he had tumbled a wee bit more in that direction, the bars would have pierced into his chest. “Like that, I die,” he thinks.

Hearing his cries, several co-workers came to help. So did the boss. However, as Alam tells it, the boss’ first thought was to warn him against telling any doctor or authority what exactly happened.

Then there followed a fourteen-hour trip to medical attention. Fourteen hours.


Try the smallest, most obscure clinic first

First, Alam was driven by the company’s “China driver” to a small clinic in the Ubi area. The general practitioner there took one look at the injury “and he say, ‘I cannot’.” It was far too serious for a GP clinic.

Then they drove to another clinic in the Yishun area. “This one bigger clinic…. Have four doctor there,” observes Alam somewhat astringently. Even so, “when doctor see, they also say, ‘I cannot’, though they gave him painkillers and an anti-tetanus shot.

Perhaps because of the painkillers, he cannot recall exactly where the third medical station was. He describes it as a “private hospital”, but can’t name it. Alam says he was either drowsy or about to faint from loss of blood. For the third time, he was turned away. Too big an injury for them too; perhaps it was just a nursing home. The staff told the Chinese driver to take Alam to Changi General Hospital.

Fourth stop: Changi General Hospital. An x-ray was taken. Blood tests were done. It was judged too serious for Changi. “Say must go SGH,” Alam recalls, using the initials for Singapore General Hospital.

Fifth stop: SGH. “I reach there 10:30 at night! Quickly, they [rush] me for operation at 11:30.” It was just the first of two operations. At 4:30am, he was wheeled into the surgical theatre again.

He was discharged less than 24 hours later, at 3:45pm on 21 October. At least, they gave him lunch before doing so. He had not eaten anything since breakfast before the accident, a day and a half ago.

Although the deep cut has been stitched, his pinkie has lost sensation. “The finger cannot move, also no feeling,” is how Alam describes it. It sounds as if nerves have been severed.


Summoned to the office

Back at the company dorm — “this dorm, I think not legal one,” — he received an instruction to go to the company office the next morning to sign some piece of paper. The company office is on the fifth floor of the an industrial building in the Ubi area. A part of the sixth floor has been converted to house the 35 to 40 employees.

Highly suspicious as to what the paper would say and anxious that he’d be pressured to sign, Alam thought it wiser to quit the dorm. He packed a small bag with his key documents and bank card, but left all his clothes behind. With an injured arm, there was no way he would manage a suitcase.

His suspicions might have been overblown. As he tells it, the boss explained that since the hospitals had given him a total of eight days’ medical leave (one day from Changi, seven days from SGH), paperwork was required. From the sound of it, the document was likely a work accident report and insurance claim. Filing such a report would be mandatory once a worker has been hospitalised for 24 hours, or has been given at least three days’ medical leave. Despite an attempt to avoid disclosure of the accident at the start, the employer might have resigned himself to the inevitable disclosure and paperwork once Alam was admitted to hospital and operated on.

However, Alam would not have known what his boss was thinking. Instead, he feared the worst. Other workers, for example, have reported that their employers forced them to sign papers giving false accounts of their accidents, absolving employers of responsibility. Alam cannot say if this was what the document would say, “I never see the paper, I never go to office.”

In any case, he was already spooked by the boss’ earlier demand that he not reveal to doctors how the accident really happened. He had more than enough reason not to trust his employer when he overheard him telling other workers to keep their mouths shut. It’s very understandable why he’d rather take his chances on the streets than show up at the company office and be surrounded by overbearing superiors.

Moreover, being driven for fourteen hours to five different medical centres would have been the final nail in the coffin of trust. Any reasonable employer would have called an ambulance and sent him straight to a large hospital.


No understanding without listening to the worker

There is a tendency of ministry officials to think that workers leaving their company quarters are out to “game the system” and look for underground work that pays much better than their regular jobs. With such an attitude, the injured worker’s words and motives are treated as questionable, and it becomes easy for officials to subconsciously excuse themselves from looking more closely at what employers get up to. Yet, without such scrutiny, no employer is penalised for trying to hide safety violations and accidents. No employer is taken to task for treating human beings crying in pain so callously while clinic-shopping.

But all it takes, to arrive at a better understanding of harsh realities, is twenty minutes sitting with a worker like Alam, letting him tell you his story: three days starting from when his forearm was ripped open, and ending with him homeless on the streets with only the shirt on his back and an arm in a sling.