By Seah Bei Ying
A heavy steel rod smashed into Razibozzaman’s right foot Saturday night, fracturing a bone within. Pain shot up, and would stay with him for over a week till he made his way, against his boss’ wishes, to a proper hospital. This was the same boss who told him that he would not be taken to a doctor till Monday, and if he went to see one on his own, the company would not reimburse his expenses.
How would you like to bear the pain of a broken foot all through Sunday and the following week?
Things were going fine for Razibozzaman, 33, at his job with Technocrete Pte Ltd until a 46mm-diameter rebar fell on his right foot during the night shift on 30 January 2016. This was the starting bell of a long struggle to get medical treatment, medical leave wages and the relevant compensation for workplace accidents – rights that he is entitled to under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA).
Crying with pain, Razibozzaman was met not by sympathy and immediate action, but by the harsh news (from the main contractor) that he would have to wait till morning to see the company doctor. That would be Sunday morning. He would have a sleepless night with the pain.
However, on Sunday itself, he was instructed by his higher-ups that he would have to wait till Monday instead because the company doctor was not available on Sundays. According to Razib, “manager say if [I choose to go to] another doctor place, cannot give money.” The message was loud and clear: the company frowned on Razib seeking his own treatment and would not cover any expenses involved. He just had to wait till Monday, even if his injury could not.
Monday, 1 February 2016, could not have come a minute too soon. Razib managed to see the company doctor and was given two days of medical leave (“MC”). The company doctor told him that he would have to do a follow-up if his injury did not get any better. Two days on, with his right foot showing no sign of healing, Razib went back to see the doctor, and was given another two days of MC.
That displeased his manager and supervisor. They told him off. He was then instructed to “just rest and buy medicine.” With that taste of their hostility, Razib was now in fear of losing his job, so he tried to bear with the pain. It is apparently not uncommon to see fellow workers “disappear”, an indication, he tells me, that their work permits were “suddenly cancel(led).”
When the second MC expired, he was sent to the storeroom to perform lighter duties. Yet, for all the medication he had taken for the week, he still felt “many many pain.” Doing the only thing he could, he decided to see the company doctor for the third time. At this point in time, Razib tells me, the company had still not reimbursed him the consultation fees for the earlier visits despite his asking. At this third visit, the company doctor was obviously much more concerned, and advised him to go to a hospital to get an x-ray done and get treatment from a specialist. The company doctor then wrote out two letters: a referral letter to Ng Teng Fong Hospital and a letter to his employer.
The x-ray revealed that one of his bones was broken. At last there was a proper diagnosis. The hospital gave him two months of MC with explicit instructions to rest and recuperate, lest the foot get inflamed.
Inflamed his supervisors were as they stormed into his dormitory room the following week to demand an explanation from Razib over the extended medical leave — as if it was something he had control over. In Razib’s words, “Boss not happy I take so many MC.” This was followed by several more “visits” by his higher-ups. Finally, he felt he had little choice but to move out of his dormitory. I understand from other volunteers at TWC2 that it is not uncommon for employers to resort to such pressure tactics, deliberately creating a threatening environment for injured workers. Workers then have to leave for their own safety, but in doing so, they end up having to pay for their own accommodation, even as they are unable to work. In Razib’s case, he now rents a bunk in a shared room in one of the shop houses in Little India for $200 per month.
His living expenses and rent are currently supported by his brother who is also working in Singapore as a construction worker. He tells me this with an apologetic look, admitting to being a liability to his brother who earns only about $600 a month. Razib has yet to pay off the total loan of $7,800 he had taken to pay an agent for the job in Singapore. Then money must also be found to pay for the education of their youngest brother back home in Bangladesh and support their family.
In Razib’s story, the doctors here have done him right by him at every turn of the process even though ideally an x-ray should have been done right at the start. The parts played by the company managers and supervisors, however, were callous and obstructive. Unfortunately, Razib’s tale is a common one. There are employers out there who are resentful of having to be responsible — as they are required to be by law — for proper medical care for their foreign employees. They also try to avoid having to provide housing and food while workers recover from their injuries, another of their obligations under the law.
Walking now proves a challenge for Razib. Perhaps the delay in getting appropriate treatment will mean a lasting impairment in his foot, an impairment that might have been totally avoided had he received prompt treatment.