By Natalie Choy
An unsightly line stretches along Bangladeshi national Sujel’s left forearm. The 12-stitch surgical scar is large enough to be distracting.
“Inside have long metal rod,”Broken he explains, as he gently presses on the stitched area to show me where the rod was surgically inserted.
The 25-year-old, who came to Singapore in 2013, worked in the construction industry for three years before an accident at work resulted in a broken arm. It has since rendered him jobless as his employer cancelled his Work Permit. Currently on Special Pass, he is not allowed to find another job and is anxiously awaiting work injury compensation.
At about 9:30am on 11 February 2016, Sujel was dismantling scaffolding at a construction site when the structure lost stability. Heavy metal tubes came crashing down as the three-storey scaffolding collapsed. The five other workers on site escaped unscathed, but Sujel’s left forearm was crushed by a falling pipe.
Sujel’s co-worker informed their employer immediately, only to get a nonchalant response in return. “Boss come, see my hand, say after makan time, lorry come fetch to clinic,” Sujel recalls. He was supposed to wait till after lunch when the lorry would come to take him to a doctor.
“After makan time” turned out to be eight hours later. Finally, at about 5:30pm, the lorry finally ferried Sujel to a nearby “small clinic” in Tuas. To his dismay, the clinic had closed for the day. “5 o’clock then we go, but closed, no see [doctor].”
Instead of rushing to another clinic or to any 24-hour emergency department, his employer once again brushed off the severity of his broken arm and told him to wait till the next morning. Medical attention was delayed and Sujel had to spend the night with seething pain in his arm.
“Night sleep, very very pain, I cannot sleep,” Sujel explains as he carefully begins to move his arm into an outstretched position. “When like this, most painful,” he gestures to me.
His co-workers tried to help him by offering painkillers but self-medication did little to alleviate the pain. All he could do was wait for dawn to break.
At 6am the next day, the lorry came and took Sujel, not to a hospital, but to another small clinic in Kranji. The severity of his injury dawned on him when the doctor referred him to Khoo Teck Puat Hospital immediately. Sujel’s bones were fractured and the arm had to be temporarily immobilised in a plaster cast. An operation was scheduled 23 February – six screws and a metal rod were inserted into his arm.
This operation does not mark the end of his treatment. “Doctor say metal rod must take out two years later, when I back home [in Bangladesh],” Sujel explains. The metal rod in his arm is there to provide stabilisation and hold the bone together. Once healing reaches completion, the rod must be surgically taken out to prevent future complications.
He tells me that his employer has not discussed payment for this second operation. I ask him if he thinks his boss will eventually pay for it. He lets out a subtle sigh, hanging his head in despair.
Sujel knows his case is not unique. He is joining the ranks of of hundreds of workers in similar predicament, and knows that his fate will not deviate much from theirs. “[If] no money, I no take out metal,” Sujel continues, visibly distraught.
Sensing the air of resignation hanging over the conversation, I decide to change the subject and ask about his family. Sujel’s eyes light up as he whips out his phone to show me personal photographs. “My one,” he beams while showing me a photograph of him riding his prized motorcycle.
Sujel continues to scroll through his image gallery and, in his best English, describes his family and life back home. He becomes increasingly excited and starts to speak faster, until all I hear is an incomprehensible jumble of broken English and Bengali.
Like Sujel, many migrant workers here belong to middle-class families in their home country but tumble down to the lower rungs of society in Singapore. Our high cost of living perpetuates the financial struggle of their blue-collar jobs.
Being poor in English gives them a weak bargaining voice and little understanding of the rights they have. The fear of repatriation also disincentivises them from speaking up when faced with injustice and indignity. This puts their employers in a superior position – a glaring power imbalance that has since led to alarming issues of abuse and mistreatment.
Every year, many hopefuls fork out thousands of dollars to start a better life in Singapore, but their dreams are more often than not cut short by injury, salary disputes and premature repatriation.
Currently in rehabilitation, Sujel has more or less exhausted the remainder of his savings and depends on TWC2’s soup kitchen for his daily meals. He lives from day to day. He had spent his first year in Singapore paying off hefty agent fees and the second year making ends meet for himself. When he was finally starting to save up enough money to remit home, the unfortunate accident had to occur. “I sad, I no send back money,” he laments.
Until plans to intensify the crackdown on mistreatment of workers translate into practice, Sujel’s case is just one of many more to come. Singapore’s migrant workers are, in many ways, the foundation of our urban cityscape. They take on the dirty and dangerous work that most Singaporeans shun, but are sadly treated as mere disposable commodities in return.