By Jiang Haolie
There was so much blood that even the bath towel wrapped around Mahbubul’s half-severed wrist was soaked. His ulnar vein was crudely ripped by a metal sheet as Mahbubul lost his footing and fell.
“I cannot even talk”, Mahbubul says, recounting the immense pain he experienced, and gesturing to indicate how tears streamed from his eyes that morning.
No ambulance was called. No paramedics attended to him.
Instead, a lorry driver from the construction site hastily ferried Mahbubul to the nearest clinic. He was turned away, with the doctor saying the injury was too serious for a small clinic. Mahbubul was then taken to a polyclinic — he believes it was the one in Woodlands — but was also turned away for the same reason. It was nearly 5pm before the employer directed the driver to take Mahbubul to Changi General Hospital, where he was finally given tetanus and painkiller injections.
Doctors at Changi assessed that immediate surgery was needed, but for that, Mahbubul had to be transferred to Singapore General Hospital. The most likely reason was that Changi General Hospital did not have the expertise to reattach his severed vein. The operation was finally performed at 4am, about 20 hours after the accident.
It should be emphasized that Mahbubul’s story takes place in Singapore, a modern country where first-world hospitals and medical expertise are no more than a short twenty-minute ambulance ride away. For any Singaporean, it is absolutely unthinkable that an ambulance is not called, and that a worker is first sent to a small clinic rather than a hospital, and as a result is not treated for the better part of a day. What were his superiors thinking?
To compound the insult, Mahbubul found himself back at his dormitory in the morning, the very next day after the accident. Someone clearly refused to have him recover in a ward.
Loss of feeling and functionality in the hand
His vein was re-attached successfully, but he remains unable to work and unable to earn a wage.
Presenting his left forearm before me, he traces the long scar that runs around his wrist. He then points at various parts of his wrist where he still feels pain and the parts of his fingers where there is no sensation. Although the vein seems to have been reattached successfully — blood flow through the hand seems normal — there appears to be other kinds of damage. Despite five long months of recovery, his left hand and wrist remain weak. Even holding an apple requires unsteady effort, he demonstrates to me. He is unable to work and is without income.
For a sole breadwinner who has tasted a life beyond poverty for his past 15 years working in Singapore, this abrupt misfortune is like stepping into a sudden void.
Back in Dhaka, Bangladesh, he has a wife and two newborns.
He reveals to me an intimate moment with moist eyes: he would rather have died in the accident. “Die also better, see nothing,” he mutters softly, looking away. “Now I no die, have to see everything. Hear baby cry. Everything.”
He shows me a $2 pay phone card – it is a prized possession for it is the only link he has with his family. It is now things like the phone card, the free meals at TWC2, the small scraps of money and the tiny gestures of support from his Bangladeshi friends that help him along. He points to the collared shirt he is wearing with an unexpected smile, “this my good friend buy me one!”
The future remains bleak for Mahbubul. While TWC2 social workers have regularly accompanied him to appointments with medical specialists, there is only so much that can be done to repair a mangled human limb.
Yet, he nevertheless remains stoic in face of the bleakness, “If can, I go back to work. If cannot, I go back Bangladesh.”
“I told boss, it not safe”
It is one thing to suffer a debilitating work place accident. It is another to have had one’s reservations on work place safety standards dismissed by an unconcerned boss. On 19 October 2015, the very eve of the fateful accident, Mahbubul was reprimanded by his boss for protesting the hazardous task. He was to lift buckets of soil while standing on an I-beam almost four meters above the bottom of the pit, without a safety harness and surrounded by sharp metal objects.
Mahbubul is a qualified safety supervisor, and had worked as one in a previous job (though in this job, he was just a general worker). He knows what safety standards should apply. Yet, his protests only met with vehement dismissal.
“Boss say do! Boss say do!” Mahbubul recounts vividly the response he got. “Boss angry.”
Is this a case of wilful negligence, borne out of an institutionalised failure to see workers like Mahbubul as human? The consequence of this negligence is a lost livelihood for Mahbubul and an entire family in limbo.
His accident has not been without good though. MOM’s safety inspectors came to check and penalised the company, says Mahbubul. According to him, the work site was shut down for a week. Now, where once only ten out of the 70 workers in the company had safety harnesses, all men are fully equipped.
“Now follow safety,” Mahbubul says with a hint of triumph in his voice, describing the improved safety standards of the company that is now in line with the same standards as the previous companies he had worked with.
But this change has come at the severe and entirely avoidable cost of Mahbubul’s hopes for a better future for himself and his family.
Even living day to day is a problem. He has received some money from the company to get by — it is not clear how the amounts have been calculated — with a promise that it will be replenished when exhausted. But his boss refuses to see him, still angry with a “black face”.
Darker yet, his own future.