By Eugene Teo
On the evening of 19 October 2015, Huq Md Mynul showed up at our free meals programme. He was running a fever and had all the signs of chicken pox over his face and body. But he was also homeless. Transient Workers Count Too immediately put him into our emergency shelter. This however created a new problem: contagion. Our emergency shelter consisted of just one big room in which we were already accommodating 6 or 7 other workers temporarily.
First, a bit more about Mynul: To be struck by a single incident of misfortune is bad enough. To be affected by two incidents in quick succession? Well, Mynul must be truly unlucky.
This occurred at the construction site of an HDB housing block on 12 October 2015, when the sharp spinning blades of a Makita grinding tool found its way into his elbow pit, leaving a deep gash. Two hours, some general anaesthetic and twelve sutures later, he was given just two days of medical leave. Here’s his take on the injury: “That night, I no sleep. I in so much pain, keep yelling.”
The fear of instant, forced repatriation was also on his mind: “I so scared boss ask me go airport, go home”.”
If two days seems like exceedingly short medical leave for such an injury, it’s because it is. If an employee is given medical leave for more than three days, the employer is obliged to report the incident to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) which may investigate safety standards at the site. Given how common two days medical leave is, even for serious injuries, there is strong suspicion that employers and doctors are trying to stay under MOM’s radar rather than do what’s best for the injured worker. We don’t know if that was what’s behind Mynul’s two days of medical leave, but what’s certain is that Mynul’s is by no means an isolated case.
Five days later, on 17 October, Mynul woke up to little bumps across both forearms. His visit to the company’s doctor was less than helpful though, as the doctor merely gave him a look-over, and told him that he had nothing to worry about. A fellow worker from his dormitory described the doctor’s attitude perfectly: “Company doctor only think of company, no think of you”.
More bumps soon appeared. The following day, Mynul made his way to Changi General Hospital. It took three hours for him to be attended to, and when he was, the doctor diagnosed chickenpox. He was prescribed some tablets, given two weeks medical leave and sent back to his dorm.
This was rather disturbing to me. In his hospital receipt, the doctor advised him to stay clear from others as far as possible, and rightly, due to the contagious nature of chickenpox.
But no one seems to have enquired how a foreign worker can be isolated. They commonly live in vast dormitories, sleeping 12 to 20 to a room, sharing military-style bath and toilet facilities with maybe a hundred more. And don’t forget, Mynul was taking the train to and from the hospital and sat for three hours in the hospital’s waiting lounge.
The next day, Mynul went downtown to a law firm to discuss work injury compensation. The lawyer’s assistant advised him not to return to the dorm — not because of the risk of contagion, but to avoid the risk of being seized by the employer’s henchmen and forcibly sent back to Bangladesh. It was thoughtful advice, but incomplete. Where else could Mynul sleep for the night?
The legal assistant pointed Mynul to TWC2’s free meals programme, but provided no help for accommodation or even medical arrangements. As Mynul puts it, “come makan [eat], but no sleeping, no hospital”. He didn’t have money either. A week or so earlier, he had just been paid his salary, but remitted virtually all the money home.
And that’s how he showed up at TWC2 on 19 October 2015. He was bordering on desperation.
We knew, by admitting Mynul into our emergency shelter, it would create a problem for the other out-of-work men there. But we couldn’t do otherwise. We couldn’t tell Mynul to sleep on the streets. He was running a fever too and needed a place to rest.
Our social workers, especially Kang Yao, swung into action. First, they took a poll among the shelterees: Who among them had had chicken pox before and therefore had immunity? Two persons said they had. The others hadn’t or weren’t sure. Kang Yao then spoke with a polyclinic and set up appointments for the unexposed men to be vaccinated. Each man required two doses, costing over a hundred dollars per person. The standing donation from Kwan Imm Thong temple for medical emergencies made it possible to respond the way we did.
We also purchased bottles of antiseptic to disinfect the room regularly.
In the end, no other person came down with chicken pox. We were 100% successful in stopping its spread.
Six months on, Mynul seems a much happier man. His wounds have healed up nicely, and he has made a full recovery from his chickenpox. He’s still in Singapore because his injury compensation claim is grinding on.
When I ask what he would have done if he hadn’t been able to find TWC2 that evening on 19 October, he simply replies that he would just have to sleep wherever he could curl up: “I find any place have, just sleep. MRT, minimart [Bangla square] also can.” He is extremely grateful that we were there in his hour of greatest need, and certain that other workers we help are likewise thankful, “I tell you, if no TWC2, many men die.”