By Yi Ning
On 18 March 2016, Islam Saiful fell about three metres at his worksite, landing on his back and leaving him with agonizing pain. This was just the start of his problems.
He was told that it was just a small matter, and that there wouldn’t be any need to see the doctor or have any medicine.
“Boss just give me cream for my back,” says Saiful, “But it didn’t help.”
His condition deteriorated. On the third day after his incident, Saiful could not even bend his body and could only walk up to ten minutes at a time.
“I go out jalan-jalan [walking] must very slow, fifteen minutes I cannot already,” Saiful recalls. Squatting or sitting was out of the question.
When the pain finally got too much for him, his boss brought him to visit a private clinic. However, it barely helped his condition. He was not X-rayed — did the doctor see no need for it? — and was just given medicine to help him cope with the pain.
Saiful then decided to take the matter into his own hands, and went to Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Immediately, X-rays were taken which showed multiple small fractures in his lower spine.
We then talk about food.
Prior to the accident, meals were brought in to his dormitory by a caterer, for which he had to fork out $125 a month. Unable to work after the fall, Saiful’s wages stopped and his money ran out. His catering stopped too. Instead of making an exception for him, the employer demanded that Saiful continue to pay his share. He would could only receive food if he paid up.
Company representatives made frequent references to sending him him back to Bangladesh. It’s not clear if the denial of meals was meant to add to the pressure on him to agree to repatriation.
When Saiful approached the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for help, the officer told him that he should continue to stay at the quarters provided by the employer. Indeed, housing is a legal obligation placed by law on employers. Food and medical care are part of that obligation. The officer told Saiful she would notify his company to provide him food while he recuperates.
Even so, nothing changed, says Saiful. No food was forthcoming. In fact, he was left with nothing for two long days, until a friend told him to visit TWC2’s Cuff Road Project for meals.
“I had to bear with the hunger,” he says of those two distressing days. “I didn’t know how to get food.”
Even trying to get help put himself in jeopardy. Saiful mentions that when he left his dormitory one evening, he was followed by some men who looked like gangsters. He didn’t recognise them, but they seemed to know him. Were they watching him?
“They said to me, why you here?” Saiful recounts. “Why you not back in Bangladesh? I was scared.” He quickly returned to the safety of his room.
He does not know who sent them or why he was targeted, only that he lived each day surrounded by constant anxiety that he would be sent home without full recovery or compensation.
TWC2’s Cuff Road project helps workers like Saiful who struggle with securing meals while recovering from a workplace injury. While his condition has improved, he still has occasional pain when he bends.
MOM’s rules may lay out employers’ responsibilities, but as this example shows, it is often ineffective, leaving simple things like getting food, which we take for granted, a huge problem for workers like Saiful.
Readers may think that “all’s well that ends well”. Thanks to TWC2, Saiful now gets his meals. What is implicit in the story however is another angle: that, in order to benefit from TWC2’s meals, which are provided in the Little India area, Saiful has had to quit his employer-provided accommodation and move to a place closer to our meal stations. Worker dormitories are often located at the furthest corners of Singapore. No injured worker can afford to ride a bus for an hour just to get to TWC2’s Cuff Road Project at each mealtime. Where would he even get bus fare?
Quitting company housing now means that Saiful has to borrow money from friends to rent a bed in the vicinity of TWC2, or depend on their goodwill and bunk in with them. In other words, in order to survive, he had to give up his right to employer-provided accommodation — simply because the employer did not provide the other right (food), and MOM is ineffective about enforcement.
Should Saiful go back to MOM to complain about not having money to pay rent, chances are (based on other cases TWC2 has seen) MOM will tell him that he brought the misery upon himself. Incredible though this may be to most readers, the ministry’s reasoning would likely be because it was he who made the decision to quit company accommodation. “You should not have quit the dorm,” Saiful would be told.
This kind of superficial logic is all too typical of this ministry. It won’t acknowledge its own role and culpability. If it had not failed in ensuring that Saiful was accorded his right to sustenance, he would not have had to leave the dorm. To now blame him for leaving the dorm is all too convenient in minimising the ministry’s own inadequacies.