By Teo Yi Ning
It was only his third month working at a concrete casting company when Sheikh Mohammad Imran hurt his back. The concrete slab that he was carrying landed on his back when he lost his footing on a slippery floor at his worksite, leaving him with intolerable pain. He estimates that the slab weighed as much as 50kg. The inability to afford medical payments left him without enough medicine and inadequate treatment for recovery.
Singapore’s Safety Orientation Course (SOC) is a training course put in place to help new foreign workers be aware of their personal safety. Every construction worker must take this course before starting work. At the SOC, he is told that the maximum weight a worker is allowed to carry physically is 25kg, but Imran says he and other workers were ordered to carry concrete slabs and cement packs weighing up to 50kg on his back, up to six times a day.
Indeed, a websearch of cement suppliers in Singapore (such as this page: http://www.claybricks.com.sg/cement_sands_misc.html) indicates that 50kg is the standard packing weight of cement in bags.
Could he have refused to carry anything over 25kg as he was taught? If “boss say carry more, I also cannot say no,” Imran tells me. It is a fact of life at worksites employing foreign workers. Since the boss can fire any worker at any time without reason, no one will dare risk his job whatever the SOC may have taught him.
“The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) will not protect the worker from such dismissal, nor is the ministry known for any enforcement of its own 25kg rule,” says Alex Au, a senior volunteer with TWC2. “It’s largely lip service paid to workers’ right to safety.”
Following his accident, Imran was sent by a coworker to a general practitioner in Woodlands, who wrote a referral letter for him to visit Khoo Teck Puat Hospital. This information was relayed to Imran’s boss, who rushed down to meet Imran at the clinic in Woodlands but proceeded to take all of his documents away. Imran was left with nothing. Without the referral letter, he was not even able to continue to receive treatment as advised by the attending doctor.
As the hours following his accident continued, Imran’s back pain intensified.
“In the end, so painful I cannot tahan already,” he said. “I called my cousin-brother to help me.”
Imran’s cousin then took him to Tan Tock Seng Hospital, where he received two x-rays and was advised against carrying heavy loads in the future. He was given 17 days of medical leave.
However, during the the medical leave period, Imran was not given any form of salary. Under the Employment Act, workers are entitled to 14 days of paid sick leave a year.
“My boss told me, [if] you cannot work, you go back [to Bangladesh]”.
“Only [in the] third month then I get the MC money from boss,” Imran tells me. The money didn’t come in its own; he had to fight for it. “I call MOM officer to help me ask, but all documents with my boss, make it not easy.”
Other than the problem of medical leave compensation, Imran also faced difficulties getting the employer to reimburse him for his medical bills. “Sometimes I get, sometimes I never get, I have to pay myself.” It’s not easy for him to pay for medicine out of his own pocket, seeing that his monthly salary was only S$800 (before the accident), coupled with the $7000 agent fee he had to pay to get this job at the construction company.
His problems continue to escalate. The hospital was unable to arrange for more medical appointments for him because his the bills that the hospital sent to his employer remained unpaid.
At wit’s end, Imran decided to engage a lawyer to help him with the outstanding compensation and insurance money. His case is pending but meanwhile his work permit has been cancelled and he is not allowed to take up employment. Even when the case is concluded, and he has recovered, he will have to go home to Bangladesh. If he wants to get a new job in Singapore, he will have to pay agent’s fees all over again.
His story is not unique. Many foreign workers have difficulty getting proper help and support when they suffer from an injury. Many too have told TWC2 about employers taking away all their documents probably in order to avoid the costs of medical treatment, or to deny him paid medical leave.
Imran is just one of the many beneficiaries of TWC2’s Cuff Road Project, where he receives two meals a day to help him with his food expenses while recuperating from his injury. Volunteers are on hand to give a little advice. If a worker has no lawyer and he needs more than simple advice, the Cuff Road Project will refer him to a trained caseworker at TWC2’s main office for more intensive assistance.