“God’s grace is with me”, says Arjunan with a smile, as he awaits an arduous legal procedure for injury compensation

By Ranjana Raghunathan

Arjunan has worked in Singapore since 2008. After four years in a company, he joined the current company in November 2014. His job involved plastering and painting of ship parts, but the nature of the chemicals used to create these parts made his job extremely hazardous. “I have to wear a body suit, a mask with respirator, and work in a smoke-filled room where only I can enter,” says Arjunan without masking his pride about his proficiency at such a ‘high-skilled’ and ‘special’ job. He further explained, “I use smoke light to work, and once the plastering and painting are complete, I have to wait there till the dust settles, only then can I open the door of the narrow room and come out.” When I ask him if the risky nature of the job made him think twice, he smiled and said he was used to it since his previous employment experience and that he felt good about it.

On 25 August 2015, Arjunan slipped and fell in a small hole inside the small room where he worked. No one could have entered immediately to help him, and he had to wait for the dust to settle before crawling out. He explains, “I fell… my body suit and mask shifted slightly as a result, and I was forced to inhale the dangerous fumes and dust.” He hurt his left knee. He was rushed to the clinic at the shipyard, but the medical officers did not diagnose any injury in his knee, despite his discomfort. His pain persisted for a month, and he took several days of medical leave with a medical certificate (MC), after which he returned to the clinic to request to get it tested further. “This time, an Indian doctor there said that conducting scans in Singapore would be expensive, and that I should just go back to India,” he said.

Arjunan’s friends advised him to go to a hospital, and he consulted the National University Hospital (NUH). The doctor at NUH criticized him for not consulting the doctor earlier, and that his knee would take a longer time to heal as a month had passed since the injury. Immediate medical attention and treatment may have cost him much less money, time and pain. Additionally, his company plans to close down its Singapore operations. Arjunan explains, “the owner is a German, and he is finding it difficult to manage the workers here.” His employer did not pay for the treatment costs at NUH, and because of his injured leg he had to take taxis to the hospital, which made it an additional monetary burden for him. His employer asked him to pay upfront, and claim the expenses later.

Arjunan has since quit his job, sought a lawyer’s assistance to file his medical and injury claims. The lawyer advised him to accumulate a few medical bills and claim them together, due to high transport costs involved to travel to the employer’s office. After a few days of seeking regular treatment at NUH, Arjunan discovered that something was wrong with his eyesight. His right eye was all right, but the fumes had perhaps affected his left eye, and it got worse with time. His follow-up treatment in March may have diagnosed the problem. I ask him when the company plans to shut down its operations, and if the case can be closed by then. He replies, with a smile, “Only God knows!”

By working in Singapore, he managed to get his two sisters married off, but he still has some dowry obligations to fulfill for his younger sister’s wedding. “I had given them 2 lakh Indian rupees [about S$4,100], but could not do much else. They are expecting more, and I need to do it as a brother. For my elder sister, I gave her utensils, fridge, bike, and some gold”, he says. He considers it his duty to get his sisters married “well”, and a matter of pride that he could afford such dowry. Arjunan’s father is 70 years old and suffers from diabetes. His mother is 60, and his parents live with his elder brother and his family. “All my siblings are married, and they are calling me back. We have some small farming land back in the village, but severe drought conditions and heavy loans forced me to come here to work in the first place”, he explains.

Arjunan now rents a bed in a hostel, for $230 per month. He is able to get by because he has a community of friends here, who help him out by paying for medical expenses, food and rent. “But they are also low-wage workers, like me…”, says he, drifting into deep thought. He reports that the lawyer is hoping to speed up the legal process, especially since the company is going to shut down soon. Arjunan would like to return to India by April, but I do not utter anything to discourage his hope, as I think to myself, “but it takes so much longer on average before the workers can return.” I ask him about his village. I write in my little notebook, as he says “Koovadannur, near Vizhupuram…” He is impressed that I got the spelling right, and asks me, “Are you also from Tamil Nadu? I have never met anyone who got the spelling right at the first time!” I laugh, and reply, “I am Tamil, but I am from Bangalore…” He is pleased to know, “I have worked in Bangalore, before I came to Singapore. At Majestic, City Market…” and I nod in our shared familiarity with my hometown.

He asks me about my family here, and then he shares with a shy smile, “Actually my family had shortlisted two girls for me, for marriage. But now, I don’t know… my younger nephew also works here, and he has a girl friend. But I am still traditional, unlike the younger generation…” I wish him the best, and said I hope for the best. He replied, with his quintessential smile, “God’s grace is with me. I would’ve died that day, in those dangerous fumes. But I am alive. During my stay in Singapore, I have been to every temple in Singapore, except the one in Marsiling… Even if I go back home after getting my injury claims, I will definitely return to Singapore, if God wills it…” On that hopeful note, we say our goodbyes and part ways.