By Richard S
Getting off at Farrer Park station, I pass railing after railing of discount clothes, sunglasses, and mobile phone accessories. This is an area catering to the migrant workers of southern India and Bangladesh. The food here is authentic, delicious, and served with staggeringly large portions of rice.
TWC2 is operating from the entrance of an open-fronted restaurant. A box of apples and a jar of plastic buttons sits on one table; on another, a plastic bag stuffed with EZ cards. The migrant workers have formed two orderly queues. The first line registers the men, provides them with a button for a free meal, and gives them access to a social worker if they ask for help over their cases. The second line is a battle-scarred group of injured workers. They are here to receive financial support in getting to and from medical appointments. These men are cheerful, and many of them are well-known to the volunteers. Most are happy to show off their injuries. Some even have photographs from the original accident. They joke with the volunteers about their hometowns, the meddling of their state-level governments, and the linguistic differences between them.
It is here we meet Marupaka Rejender. Rajender’s hand is swollen, and still shows the traces of a significant surgical operation. Rajender speaks good English, and talks quickly, fluently. He is able to recount considerable detail of his accident, and even has pictures of his paperwork to support his story. He shows me a picture of a doctor’s note, an X-ray of his hand, and then a picture of a man in sunglasses loading scaffolding on to a flat-bed truck.
‘This,’ he says, ‘was the supervisor who caused the accident.’
On September 23rd, Rajender was loading the flat-bed truck with scaffolding when his hand was cut open.
‘First,’ he says, ‘they took me to fill out an accident report.’
‘What do you mean “first”?’ I ask. ‘Before you saw a doctor?’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Before I saw a doctor.’
At that time, his hand was still bleeding. This was an accident which required 26 stitches. Rajender was then taken to a doctor and after an operation performed under general anesthetic, was given two days medical leave. He asked the doctor why he was given only two days medical leave. The doctor explained that he had already spoken to his boss. Two days leave was all he could give.
Rajender shows me his hand. Several months after the accident, it is still swollen. He has difficulty gripping things between his fingers and thumb. At the time of the accident, he could not even eat with his right hand.
In spite of this, Rajender continued on light duty for the next two months. Through October and November, he used his left arm to perform the same repetitive action. He saw a doctor once every two weeks, but on December 8th , he reported severe pain in his arm. He informed his supervisor.
‘I have pain, sir. I cannot come [to work].’
Rajender was wary of forced repatriations. He had seen it happen before. The boss told him he was free to leave any time he liked — which sounds like a gesture of flexibility, but was more a warning that he’d be fired if he didn’t show up at work. But how could Rajender find other work with an injured hand? On that day, he decided to leave his employer and filed his case with a lawyer.
Rajender has now taken his case to the Ministry of Manpower. He shows me a text message detailing the status of his application. I ask him when he last heard news from the MOM. He takes out his phone, and sends another text message to the MOM. We wait. Less than a minute later he receives his reply.
‘No change,’ he says.
Rajender has been to see a new doctor, and has been given an extended period of medical leave. His lawyer is paying for his accommodation, but has advised him not to take any MC money while the case is being settled. The lawyer will take a significant cut of any money paid out by his employer. Rajender is aware of this.
I say goodbye feeling optimistic that his case will be settled. But what this case highlights is how the odds are stacked against the migrant worker. If Rajender had not left his employer when he did, if he had not held on to his supporting paperwork, if he had not been aware of the financial and legal support available from groups like TWC2, his case could have ended very differently.