Not often do we get to interview a worker who has only walked out of his company the same day. Ranjana got this chance, and she takes us into his moment of anxiety and bewilderment. In the process, she explains why we need Little India as Little India.
By Ranjana Raghunathan
I meet Ayyan Chinnasamy when he is feeling anxious, uncertain and appears a little flustered. As we sit down to talk, I find out that he quit his job that very day and came straight to Little India. He takes a few moments of silence, and then explains his situation. Ayyan worked in a construction company. On 22 February 2016, he was placing a stone under a heavy steel rod, and accidentally the rod cut his index finger. He had severe blood loss, and he was rushed to Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Novena. A surgery was deemed necessary, so he was hospitalized. The surgery was conducted by grafting flesh from his palm. Ayyan shows me his cut index finger and says, “I cannot fold the fingers. For two months, my finger was kept folded in a plaster as it healed.”
Ayyan’s employer followed protocol, and informed the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) about the accident. They also ensured he got timely medical treatment. However, there was no communication from the employer thereafter, even as Ayyan continued to stay in the Mandai hostel provided by the company. He grew increasingly uncertain about his employment during the month he spent on medical leave. “Can I claim compensation for workplace injury? If my contract ends, can I stay on in Singapore to settle the injury claim? Will I be paid for the days that I was on medical leave?” were some of the questions that haunted Ayyan. He was also worried and afraid that his employer might just allow his work permit to expire — it was anyway due to to expire in the end of April 2016 — and that he would have to leave Singapore without any compensation for his damaged finger.
“Today, I spoke to a lawyer and sought advice. He advised me to file an injury claim, and to leave the company,” says Ayyan. “I just quit [the hostel] today, and have come straight here to Little India,” he adds. “I will meet the lawyer tomorrow.”
He is still in a daze as he looks around the many workers gathered there at TWC2’s Cuff Road Project that night. He has walked out of a highly uncertain position into an even more precarious one. Fortunately, he knew an acquaintance who also has a workplace injury claim pending, and the acquaintance brought Ayyan to TWC2 that evening for a free meal. After dinner, they plan to look for alternative accommodation for Ayyan among the rooms around Desker Road.
Ayyan is nervous and unsure where he will stay, eat, or how he will pay for his expenses while he waits for his injury claim and MC (medical certificate) wages. He is not sure of his rights, and his only source of information is the acquaintance who is equally uncertain even though his claim has been pending for longer.
The facts may be simple for those of us in the know: workers who get injured at a workplace are allowed to claim medical leave wages from their company, which is usually covered by insurance. Additionally, they can claim reimbursement for any medical treatment they have to pay for themselves. Finally, if there is any permanent disability, there is compensation for that too. But for Ayyan and others like him, these are issues they never had to think about or seek information on. Tonight, however, they are all pressing questions for him, and yet he has no clue whom to ask.
Alex Au, one of the more experienced volunteers with TWC2, says a case like Ayyan’s highlights the importance of social networks among workers. “They are poorly informed, and if not for their sense of community and mutual help, they would be totally lost with no knowledge about their rights, or where to seek help.” The system is not worker-friendly, he says. “The shortfalls in compliance [with the many employer obligations] and language barriers make the system work against the workers.”
Over the years, TWC2 has observed that larger companies are able to allow their workers to be on medical leave, and resume work after they have recovered. However, smaller companies with a shortage of manpower may need immediate replacement of workers and typically cancel the injured workers’ permits to hire others. In many cases, workers often recover enough to be off medical leave within a few months, but their injury claims take much longer to resolve. MOM requires injured workers to stay in Singapore so long as their claims are in process. Currently, these workers are barred from employment, causing financial distress. TWC2 believes that these workers should be allowed to take up other jobs in sectors such as retail or F&B, jobs that would not aggravate their injuries. Doing so would allow them to sustain themselves and alleviate the manpower crunch so often faced by these small enterprises.
For now, all this is too abstract to be of any immediate help to Ayyan.
With his work life unexpectedly disrupted and in such a situation of alienation, Ayyan’s only asset is a semblance of community, which foreign workers have come to depend on in urban enclaves like Little India. Its network of shops and services tuned to foreign workers’ needs, with their staff able to speak his language, eases his daily difficulties in a way that no other part of Singapore can. Ayyan’s immediate needs are a place of affordable, alternative housing and familiar food, which is only available to him in Little India. The presence of other countrymen, many in similar circumstances as himself, gives him access knowledge and much-needed support. For communities that do not have the means to exploit the internet or other advanced communication channels, and for whom even travelling by bus may cost too much, physical proximity is what makes such social networks possible. This is the reason enclaves develop: they serve a strong social purpose. The recent call by member of parliament Denise Phua to keep more areas of her constituency barricaded from foreigners and to disperse foreign workers out of places like Little India [see footnote 1] is exactly the kind of action that will disadvantage the already vulnerable population further and lead to more alienation.
I meet Ayyan a month after I first met him, and he is glad to see me again. He speaks Tamil, and asks me “Madam, what is the procedure for the claim? How long will it take? What should I do next?” I learn that he has since hired a lawyer to process his injury claims, but feels subordinated by the “educated, English-speaking lawyer”. Despite being the lawyer’s client, he is ill informed about his rights and the processes necessary to access them.
I put each of his questions to Alex, who patiently answers them. I translate Alex’s answers so that Ayyan does not miss out on any detail. He is happy, thankful and proceeds to take his dinner.
- Mothership.sg, 7 April 2016, Denise Phua had a foot-in-mouth moment comparing high-density congregations in Little India to ‘walking time-bombs’ Link.