Google Earth view of Bedok Industrial Park C. Bedok North MRT station is under construction at lower part of image.

By Wahid Al Mamun, based on an interview in May 2017

What constitutes a workplace injury?

This seems like an easy question to answer as I sit with Rana Md Sohel at TWC2’s meal programme. His claim seems reasonable enough – he cannot extend his left forearm fully, and there is a large scar running down it. Instinctively he tries to hide the scar with his other hand when he talks to me. But the complexities of Rana’s case reveal an absurd situation, as his fate is left subject to a vague and malleable interpretation of existing manpower laws.

The bare facts of Rana’s injury are relatively straightforward. Employed by Deluge E&C Pte Ltd, he was posted as the storeman for the company’s materials store at or near Bedok Industrial Park C. He was mostly working alone at that location. On 21 November 2016, he broke his arm in three places after falling off a bicycle while making his way to a toilet some distance from his store. To me, this seems to fall well within the coverage of the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) Workplace Injury Claims Act (WICA), which grants claims made by employees who are injured by an accident arising out of and in the course of employment.

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Specifically, page 15 of an explanatory booklet issued by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) states that an accident connected with a toilet break would be within the scope of WICA. Click the icon at right to see that page.

But – and here’s the question – who cycles to the toilet anyway? Why did Rana not have a toilet in his own store, to begin with?

I ask Rana these questions and he shakes his head. “Boss say, I one person use toilet for washing, waste money.” The company didn’t think it cost-effective to install toilet facilities at the store where only one employee (Rana) was stationed. Other subcontractors at the site had toilet facilities, but the nearer ones wouldn’t let Rana use them. The only toilet he was permitted to use was a full twenty-minute walk away, which was why he used a bike to get there. Rana goes on to say that both his manager and his safety supervisor were aware of this practice – cycling to use a distant toilet – for at least two years, and had never objected to this arrangement.

At this point, I feel a stab of pity for my interviewee. This was an entirely avoidable situation, produced by his employer’s supposed miserliness.

However, there are unexpected turns in the story, beginning almost immediately after Rana reported the case to his safety supervisor, who, with the manager, took him to a doctor. It was at the hospital, says Rana, where he was asked by the supervisor to tell the doctor that “I go out [of the industrial park to] buy makan [food].” Assurances were given that the company would look after him better if he spoke as requested.

Trustingly, Rana did just that. “I believe safety [supervisor], I say what he tell me [to say to the doctor].”

Making matters more difficult, Rana adds that he later learned that the safety supervisor had never filed a safety report for the incident. It is not clear however how he knows or has come to believe this.

Nonetheless, Rana, through a lawyer, filed a work injury compensation claim at the Ministry of Manpower earlier this year. But in May 2017, his claim was turned down; MOM ruled that it was not a valid workplace injury. Rana’s lawyer tells TWC2 that he lodged an objection to this finding, with a letter dated 8 June and additional information 14 June 2017. However, even two weeks after the interview, the claim status was still listed as invalid and final: “Case is settled as no objections received.” It is not known what else happened at MOM with respect to the lawyer’s letters.

Rana thinks he’s at the end of the road. He is hunched over the table in front of me, a defeated man. His boss is preparing to repatriate him. “He tell me he cut ticket already,” recounts Rana. “Tell me, go now pack luggage.”

As I listen to Rana’s impassioned story, I cannot help but wonder how easy it was for the company to disclaim responsibility. There are no witnesses to the incident, and at least according to Rana, no official record of the injury. Even Rana’s own initial statement to the doctor contradicts his injury claim.

As I wrap up the interview and break my fast together with Rana, I attempt to reconcile the many strands of information presented to me. Understandably, from a neutral position, I can see why the MOM would find it hard to grant the injury claim to Rana, with a lack of definite proof. Notwithstanding that, I find it disconcerting that the very legislation that the MOM had designed to provide a safety net to migrant workers was so easily circumvented by the employer. I would be really angry if I were Rana, I think to myself.

But Rana is not in the mood for revenge. “I no thinking money,” says Rana, emphasising it was not compensation but recovery that was top of mind. “I thinking my life, my family. My arm like this, how to help them?”