We wondered how a foreign worker might form an opinion whether he was getting adequate medical care. We picked a worker at random to see what he has to say.

By Cheow Yong Jian

Meet Kalam Md Abul, 28, a construction worker whose experiences leave him in considerable doubt on how to answer this question. He has visible difficulty moving his arms as he speaks to us (on 28 April 2017) about his situation.

It has been more than a year since a fallen scaffolding in his Hougang construction site landed him on his left elbow in March 2016, resulting in an internal bone fracture that continues to plague him till today. Kalam recounts that his “main con” (main contractor for the project he was working at) had sent him to the site’s safety officer, who brought him to what he was told was a “hospital” for treatment.

Only, this wasn’t a hospital, but merely a general practitioner in a small clinic in Little India. Kalam explains that this was “company choice, not my choice”.

According to him, the doctor did some “massaging” of his arm to relieve the injury — more likely, the doctor was palpating to assess the extent of the injury.  Nonetheless, it appears that the doctor concluded that there wasn’t any complication inside. No X-ray scan was done at the clinic, says Kalam. He also mentions that the initial $150 treatment cost was co-paid by him and his employer.

A week later, Kalam felt that his condition had not significantly improved, despite taking his medication. The pain had not subsided. Kalam decided to go to Tan Tock Seng Hospital himself for further treatment. There, he underwent an X-ray and was subsequently referred to a specialist for his follow-up, but no operation was conducted – “plaster only”, Kalam adds. He says he has not regained full functionality in his arm.

Kalam believes his doctors have done a good job despite the delay in discovering the fracture. He has different things to say about his employer, however: Kalam laments that his “boss no good”. This is said in connection with a grouse about his  monetary compensation claims being inadequately attended to by his superiors.

Kalam is not alone amongst the wide spectrum of migrant workers in Singapore who are vulnerable to injury and other physical ailments due to the nature of their work. His story indicates that they may be inadequately equipped to respond to them at a sufficiently informed level. It took him more than a week to realise that a GP’s clinic might not be able to provide the right level of treatment, and to realise that he should seek better medical attention at a proper hospital.

But he, like many of his fellow colleagues, is quick to make an assessment of his employer, and this assessment appears to be based primarily, at the risk of oversimplification, on whether he’s getting money.

This observation is not unusual at all. Often, conversations with Bangladeshi workers, even if they start off on a different topic, veer to issues of money. Given that they take on huge debts to get their jobs, and then remain in financial stress for years till these debts are paid off, money anxieties are understandably top of mind. They dominate the men’s thoughts and perspectives, and tend to form their primary measure of whether other parties are “good” or “bad”. For those of us not in their (unenviable) position, it takes some effort to see their situation through their eyes.