By Chow Zheng Shuan
Uddin Md Jashim — or Din, as his friends call him — is at Isthana Restaurant this Monday evening for dinner provided by TWC2. After receiving his packed meal from the counter, he settles down at a table to recount his story to me.
I picked him randomly to talk to. I have no idea what he’s going to tell me. My editor’s words come to mind: “At one level, many of their stories are the same: injury, inadequate or delayed medical treatment, confusion over the compensation process, long waits. At another level, every man has a unique story testifying to the infinite number of creative ways that employers can give them the shaft.”
This is Din’s story.
On 24 September 2016, Din suffered a fall from height as he lost his balance. He hit his head and hurt his back. It’s been months since, but he still hasn’t fully recovered.
He was first treated at the private West Point Hospital, but later transferred to Tan Tock Seng Hospital, one of our public hospitals. I ask why. Din says it was because the private hospital’s bills were too high.
Frugality has much to recommend it, of course. Especially if one is speaking of medical care for foreign workers. Cost-cutting is the daily mantra. But never mind that, and skipping the usual bureaucracy, tiring recovery process and finger pointing, we shall be privileged to experience the free roller coaster ride that Din took.
Two weeks after his fall and while he was still recovering, a trusted family friend of his — let’s call him Abu — came to tell him some serendipitously good news. Abu was also considered the head of the foreign work crew at the company. The good news was that the company was offering Din a chance to return to Bangladesh to visit his family. To make things even more convenient for him, a one-way ticket had already been purchased, and it would be ready for picking up the next morning.
Abu told Din this would allow him to recover back at home with his family. After a week, Din could fly back to Singapore and return to work. Not only would this be good for him, it would also help the company as “the workplace had some problem”.
Din has seen enough of the world to sense that it was all too good to be true. His friends thought so too and advised him to head down to Little India to check the status of his Work Permit. There are shops providing this service there. Din did as advised. He was half unsurprised, and still half-shocked to learn that his Work Permit had been cancelled by the employer. Cancellation can be done with merely a few clicks online.
Did Abu, his trusted family friend, just lie and betray him? Who can he trust now?
He refused to report at the manager’s office the next day. Instead, he went straight to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to report the accident and to apply for a Special Pass — a document that allowed him to stay on legally in Singapore while he sought treatment for his injury.
But throughout that morning, his phone kept receiving calls from the boss and Abu. The only way Din could concentrate and talk to MOM officials was to turn off his phone.
While there, he also learned that “boss [had] not report to MOM” about his accident and injury. Din had been warded overnight at West Point Hospital, and under the law, reporting an accident such as his becomes mandatory once a worker has to stay 24 hours in hospital. This explains why the company was so keen to get him out of the country.
Says Christine Pelly, a member of TWC2’s Executive Committee: “Employers not reporting (an injury) is a fairly frequent occurrence,” she confirms, based on the thousands of cases TWC2 sees at our meal programme each year. “It puzzles me that despite this being a legal requirement under the [Work Injury Compensation Act] where hospitalisation of 24 hours or outpatient medical leave exceeding three days means employers must make a report, employers can still flout this with impunity.”
Coming out of MOM and looking at the messages accumulated on his phone, one struck him. It was a missed call from Bangladesh. The number was his own home.
Din called back, and learned that Abu or some other company representative had contacted the family. They had been promised thousands of dollars if he would only refrain from reporting the incident and went back to Bangladesh quietly.
Too late now, Din had made the report. But he wondered: Would he had been persuaded by the family to accept the “offer” if he had picked up the call first? But then, would the hush money come through even if he refrained from reporting the accident? He would have been back in Bangladesh by then. He wouldn’t be able to make a report at MOM even if the company reneged on the promise.
There is another aspect to this ethical question. Is it acceptable for companies to apply pressure through the workers’ families? “I think it is not at all acceptable,” Christine Pelly says, pointing out that some workers do not even want their families to know that they have been injured. “They don’t even want to tell for fear of family distress, they don’t want [the news] to get back but would rather get treated in Singapore and get things [compensation] sorted quietly.”
Involving the family, she points out, is a way of “putting pressure on him” to avoid the having the accident reported.
Commenting on the fact that Singapore is supposed to be a place where laws are enforced, Christine shakes her head again, “It’s very puzzling.”