By Namgay Choden, based on an interview in July 2017

With me this evening is Howlader Mohammod Selim, and he tells me about what happened in September 2016. Selim had suffered an accident at work, and was brought to Ng Teng Fong Hospital in Jurong East.

After treatment, the doctor asked Selim whether he needed a medical leave certificate (MC). Selim explains: “I say yes because it’s paining.”

“Doctor say he give me 17 days,” he adds. However, the manager who was with him intervened to dissuade the doctor from issuing an MC. According to Selim,  “Manager say no need MC. . . you just sleep.”

Three years earlier, in July 2013,  a joint circular was issued by the Ministries of Health and Manpower to doctors and companies reminding them that it should be doctors deciding, on professional medical grounds, how many days of medical leave an injured worker gets. The ministries’ email to companies said

“You should not request medical practitioners (to) prescribe less than the requisite length of medical sick leave or issue light duties instead in order to avoid incident reporting.”

See this earlier article. The Straits Times also had a report about this matter and the circular.

As a writer for TWC2, I look for stories in a casual way. I go to the free meal programme and hover at the entrance. Workers do not approach me with sensational tales. I must make small talk with those who come by —  “So your arm looks injured. Can you move it?” —  and hope that at some point one of them will say something that is interesting and worth delving into.

It’s not as difficult as it sounds. Workers suffer so many injustices and so often fall through the cracks that it doesn’t take long to come across someone with an experience that cries out for documenting. That we writers have it so easy in getting stories is a reflection of how poorly treated foreign workers are. As Selim’s hospital incident shows, even formal circulars by government authorities — and reported prominently in the media too — count for nothing.

At 29 years old, Selim had been working in a shipyard company operating hydraulic machines since 2013. On 27 September 2016, his left arm and index finger was injured by the hydraulic machine. He recalls how he had noticed a little earlier that there was a problem with the machine when pressure from the valve blew his helmet off. He had reported it to a supervisor and his manager, suggesting that the machine not be used till repaired.

The manager rejected his idea.  “Manager say, ‘If job no have, what you going to do. . . go sleeping ah?’”

So he went back to work…. and the accident happened. It was around 3:30pm. He describes his hand bleeding and being in pain. He was taken to an office, where the shipyard safety officer suggested that an ambulance be called to take Selim to a hospital.

More interference: The manager rejected the suggestion and insisted that they will use the company lorry, except that this vehicle was not immediately available.

Comments Alex Au, a senior volunteer with TWC2: “Beyond the question of cost, one thing that companies dislike is the fact that ambulances keep records of their trips. It’s going to be hard to deny that there was someone ferried to hospital from a worksite that day.”

Selim waited. Six hours. He wasn’t taken to the hospital till 9:30pm.

Did you ask why the lorry wasn’t coming sooner? I ask him.

“I many many asking,” Selim says, adding that he was not given any dinner, only water.

Alex adds:  “TWC2 has seen this pattern many times before, where a worker, injured in the afternoon, is not taken to a doctor till well into the evening. We’ve often wondered whether it is too inconvenient to the employer to have a hospital admission record time-stamped for, say, 4pm. That would be within normal work hours, and therefore an indication that the accident most likely happened at work. It would undercut deniability, wouldn’t it?”

So, was the lorry really too busy till 9:30pm?

However, Selim’s story has a silver lining. The doctor appeared to have stood his ground to some extent over the length of the medical leave. Selim says he was eventually given five days’ MC. Being more than three days’ MC, this made it an accident that was mandatory for the company to report to the work safety authorities. We do not know whether Selim’s company reported the incident, and if it didn’t, whether MOM would take any action against it for failing to do so.

At some time in the days following the accident, Selim recalls the manager telling him, “Two workers sent home already. You also get permit cut if you get MC.”

And sure enough, when, at a follow-up medical appointment, his MC was extended by around a month, his Work Permit was cancelled.

We talk about his plans for the future.

Selim will soon go back to Bangladesh after his work injury compensation claim is resolved. He has a widowed mother. He shares that he could not complete school beyond fifth grade, after his father passed away.

He reveals that he still owes $4,000 to lenders who helped him finance the $8,500 recruitment fee he paid to get this job in Singapore. Even when he receives some amount for injury compensation — which is not assured — Selim thinks the money will be depleted very fast after paying back what he has borrowed from friends in the months since losing his job.

He falls silent. He gazes into a distance. I wait.

“Now I what doing I don’t know,” he whispers.