By Liang Lei, based on an interview in June 2017

What would you do if you think that your job constitutes a breach of safety regulations? For foreign workers, even having a choice of action is regrettably often a luxury. The consequence of disobeying supervisors’ orders, however unsafe, can be the sack. As a result, many foreign workers would put their safety at risk to complete their assigned tasks. Accidents may follow.

Take for example Helal’s experience.

Helal (not his real name) worked at a shipyard for a company we’ll call Chuntiko. His job scope included maintenance works on vessels. In  June 2017, Helal was on night shift when he followed his supervisor and other workers to do work on five-metre deep tanks. Carrying a fire extinguisher and a water bottle, he was told by his supervisor to enter a tank without any form of lighting.

Helal understood that doing so would be unsafe and was reluctant to comply. He tells TWC2 that it was a clear breach of safety regulations. However, his supervisor and another worker had already climbed into the tank. The supervisor also challenged him, saying “Everybody can do, you cannot do?”. Helal explains that if he disobeyed, he would likely be on the bad books of his supervisor — often a starting point for a downward spiral of sidelining, bullying, abuse and possibly termination. Lodging a complaint against his supervisor about this issue was also out of the question for the same reasons, he tells us. Despite his reservations, Helal decided to follow the rest into the dark tank.

Unfortunately, Helal slipped while climbing down a ladder into the tank; he fell about four metres. He was evacuated and sent to the company hospital for treatment, before being transferred to National University Hospital. Initial assessments revealed that there were no fractures, and Helal was put on medical leave till at least the middle of July. He is still reporting pain in his shoulders and back., and unable to sleep properly or carry much weight due to the pain.

We’re using a pseudonym in this story at his request because he tells us that he has not yet told his family about the injury. The news will cause his parents “many many headache”.

From my conversation with Helal, the key reason he did not risk disobedience to his supervisor despite the safety breach described seems to be how important the job was to him and his family. Money must be earned and remitted to Bangladesh monthly to support the family. Of course, the irony is that he is now out of work, not due to disobedience, but due to obedience and the accident that followed.

Yet, at that moment of decision, an accident was merely an abstract possibility. Getting flak from the supervisor and putting his job at risk was more real. He had little choice but to undertake any task given to him, safety breach or not, making his injury case regretful but hardly surprising.

Helal hopes to make a quick recovery and continue working in Singapore to support his family. However, many challenges currently stand in his way. He is currently in dispute with his employer over who should pay the hospital bills, the sum of which is impossible for Helal to pay in full. He has also been evicted out of the company accommodation and has been paying for his own bunk.

TWC2 spotted this signboard at a worksite in Tampines. The worksite has no relation to the incident described in the story. But is reporting to the supervisor good enough?

Each year, TWC2 handles about 1,600 injury-related cases involving foreign workers. However, many of these cases can potentially be avoided if sufficient regulations and whistle-blowing channels are in place for foreign workers to address safety issues in their workplace. After all, with increased worker productivity, lower turnover rates and higher company reputation, a safe working environment is beneficial to not only the workers, but the employers and companies too.