By Poh De Sheng
Perhaps the chief reason foreign workers come to Singapore is the comparatively higher salaries on offer. Men will endure the hardship of separation, crowded living conditions and abominable hours of physical labour in the hope, not just of helping their families at home get by, but of helping their children and siblings get ahead by giving them an education.
This is the case for Narayanan Iyyanar, who plans to send his two sons through college. His older son, aged 17, will be ready to move on to college next year. However, an accident has left his hopes of funding his sons’ education in a precarious position.
His story illustrates how financially devastating a workplace accident can be for foreign workers. This is aggravated by the long wait for case resolution (with no guarantee that there will be any compensation in the end) which itself can be ruinous.
A construction worker from India, Iyyanar has been working in Singapore for more than one and a half years when misfortune struck. On 22 April 2016, his eye was badly cut by stray shards of cement. With no help forthcoming from his employers, Iyyanar suffered excruciating pain and blindness in his injured eye for ten days before taking it upon himself to seek medical help. “After ten days I talking to the driver, ask him bring me Tan Tock Seng [hospital],” he tells me during our interview.
After his visit, Iyyanar was given eleven days medical leave, with an additional six days of light duty. While the employer paid his visitation fees, the company’s patience soon wore thin. They tried to send him home to India just three days into his medical leave, leading Iyyanar to seek out TWC2 for help.
As at the time of the interview, Iyyanar reports that he has impaired vision in his eye. “Long one, small one cannot see.” It being already four months after the accident, this may be the permanent condition from here on.
He is off medical leave, but he has no job to return to. The Ministry of Manpower’s rules disallow him from seeking new employment while his compensation case remains pending. How long the process will take is outside his control. Iyyanar’s injury and consequent loss of employment have left him all at sea financially. Income for him and his family have been abruptly cut off. Meanwhile he has to survive in Singapore, paying rent, looking for food and finding a way to pay for transport and phone cards.
Even before the accident, the money equation was difficult.
While his erstwhile monthly salary of $883 far outstripped that which he may be able to earn back in India — roughly 15,000 rupees, or $304 — it proved insufficient to provide for the living expenses and school fees of his wife and children. This has meant that, even while working, Iyyanar has not been able to recover what he paid to get the job: his agent’s fee of $2,500.
According to a fellow Indian worker, Nagelli Reddy, the cost of living and education in India have increased tremendously in recent years.
The fees for high school have increased from 2,000 rupees per month when he had attended school ten years ago to 15,000 or 18,000 rupees currently, says Nagelli. Moreover, increased academic competition among peers means that Indian students increasingly take after their Singaporean counterparts in going for supplementary classes. For a single subject, students can expect to pay around 500 rupees.
“Uniform, books, now everything very costly,” he adds.
Needless to say, the money Iyyanar has since spent on rental and medical bills post-accident has done nothing to ease his financial troubles. He appears to have exhausted his meagre savings. The family now borrows from illegal moneylenders to see to their expenses. His mother has even had to send him the money she got from pawning her jewellery,
These days, Narayanan cannot see too well out of his right eye. He can even see less of the future ahead. Will he be able to work again at a similar salary?
Without my prompting, he pulls out his phone to show me pictures of his sons. Against all odds, he still envisions a brighter future for both of them.