By James Mah
“Go back home”. Such remarks can be heard infrequently in Singapore, uttered by locals frustrated at the sight of migrant workers on public transport when buses and trains are jam-packed. Most of the time, these comments would be said from the stress of the moment, without any malicious intent. This was not the case, however, for one migrant worker, who endured such scathing comments for more than a year, injured and clinging onto a glimmer of hope for recompense.
Ahammed Rasel, 25, arrived in Singapore on December 2014. Young and able-bodied, he had left behind his parents and three younger brothers in Bangladesh in search for a living here. He was recruited by China Construction Realty, and began his humble career as a construction employee, par the course for many migrant workers in Singapore. But just three months into his stint, misfortune struck. While navigating his way around a construction drain, he fell and sustained injuries to his right knee. The ladder he was scaling also decided to land, of all places, on his legs. Ahammed was promptly sent to a company clinic, where he was issued a doctor’s note for light duties. And sent back to his employer.
Where then, is the proverbial twist in this story? When I ask Ahammed if he can squat or bend his right knee, the awkward knee movement is all that is needed to inform me of his miserable plight. While his company clinic has ostensibly given him the green light to resume work, Ahammed’s incapacitated knee continues to hurt. Rather than arrange medical attention at a proper hospital, where more comprehensive tests and treatment could be administered for Ahammed, his employer opted for the easy way out: they told him to “go back home”. As pressure mounted, Ahammed had to seize the initiative and make his own way to Tan Tock Seng Hospital before the gravity of his injuries saw the light of day. By then, four months had already passed. The hospital said the knee required surgery, payment for which his employer at first stonewalled. The company agreed to pay for the surgery only after incontrovertible proof was submitted.
Even so, it was too late. Ahammed is partially handicapped at his right knee – a result of flagrant indifference which could very well have been averted if his employer had displayed more urgency and concern. Ahammed confides that he is hoping to receive a sum ranging from $11,000 to $14,000 under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) for his long-term disability, but will this one-off stipend be enough to insure him for life, and afford the inevitable follow-up treatments that come his way?
So what did Ahammed do this past one year since the accident, carrying a bruised right knee and unable to make his stay in Singapore financially productive? “I sleep in my room,” he says blandly. Indeed, other than making the routine trip down to the hospital or Ministry of Manpower (to extend his Special Pass), Ahammed has been rendered a cripple, living as a recluse while repeatedly harassed to “go back home”.
Still, ever since he was properly diagnosed at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, his employer did soften his financial woes by giving him $400 a month as “MC money”. The catch? This measly amount is barely enough to support himself, leaving him with very little for remittances to his family who depend on him. Stoically, Ahammed tells me “health more important than money” — a way of saying financial troubles can be left to later, but he is determined to get proper treatment first.
What about his family? When I nudge Ahammed about his kin in Bangladesh, he merely shakes his head before confessing that he has tried to minimise contact with them as much as possible. To Ahammed, his injury was a “small thing”, an incident he put down to rotten luck which he does not want to inconvenience his family with. He is resisting their pleas to return home. As Ahammed put it cryptically, because he simply “cannot”. What “cannot” really means, if I may hazard a guess, is probably a sense of duty to his family – a relationship that compels him to stay put in Singapore and not leave until he gets money.
At the time of writing, Ahammed is still awaiting arbitration on the size of his compensation – how much he deserves after a gruelling, year-long nightmare of pain, solitude and alienation. What the law can never account for, however, is a life of normalcy robbed forever by an errant employer. Still, as they say, every cloud has a silver lining. Once Ahammed is reunited with his family, hopefully, he may fulfil his role as a dutiful son while he learns to live with a permanent disability.