By Wahid Al Mamun based on an interview late July 2017

A lot of things can happen in two months, and Mollah Showrov has learned this the hard way. His right leg is now in held immobile in an orthopaedic boot. I notice how gingerly he seats himself in the plastic chair beside me. Here is a man down on his fortunes, I think to myself.

It is intriguing just how sharply Mollah’s fortune turned. He had previously worked for Alpine Engineering for 3 years and 7 months with little issue before problems in his family compelled him to quit the job and return to his native Bangladesh. By contrast, his new job at Smart Tech Marine Pte Ltd was rocky, to say the least. The $4,500 fee Mollah paid to an intermediary agent in Bangladesh had burned a substantial hole in his pocket even before he stepped on Singaporean soil late May 2017. And in mere weeks since, Mollah’s life has been turned upside down.

From the start there seemed to be something strange about the tasks the company assigned him. Although Mollah was trained as a pipe-fitter, he was told to work in machinery maintenance. This may already present a safety violation – surely there is an issue of qualification or competency? Indeed, on 1 July 2017, a heavy steel piston fell on Mollah’s leg at his workplace in Tuas. He lost his balance and fell down entirely. The result: hairline fractures on his tibia and a back sprain. One wonders whether this could have been avoided if the right personnel were assigned the right job.

Mollah was brought to Ng Teng Fong Hospital immediately by his supervisors, where his injuries were promptly cleaned and treatment began. However, there was no mention of the piston in the hospital conversations. According to Mollah, the company’s safety supervisor did all the talking with the doctor, even going so far as to call it a “normal injury” — whatever that means.

I wonder why Mollah didn’t stick up for himself at this critical point. “Nervous”, he replies quietly. “I only here two months. I scared I get sent back home.”

Based on my experience as a TWC2 volunteer, I brace myself at this point to anticipate a series of small horrors, as is the norm with so many of these cases. To my pleasant surprise, things didn’t seem too bad, at least at the start. A week after the accident, Mollah was given approximately $1,000, excluding deductions for salary advances. He can’t tell me exactly what this amount was for, but the pay-out suggests that Mollah’s company was following some kind of responsible process.

However, two days later, his manager (a Mr. Stanley) met with him and attempted to re-negotiate his monthly salary, which had been expressly stipulated at $530 per month on his in-principal approval (IPA) letter. Mr Stanley asked him to agree to $480 a month. “He say, I sign contract or I don’t get pay,” recalls Mollah. Under international human trafficking law, this constitutes contract substitution, especially as this demand came at a moment when Mollah was most vulnerable. He needed the company to support him through his period of recovery. Though this responsibility would have been provided by law, Mollah could not be sure that the company would still live up to its responsibility if he refused to sign. Asking him at this point to agree to a lower salary would constitute exploiting  a worker’s vulnerability to obtain a financial advantage for the company. This is trafficking.

Moreover, a lowered monthly pay would be especially detrimental to Mollah, as it would affect his future disability compensation and medical leave wages. These two are computed on the basis of his basic salary. Although Mollah refused to agree to any lower salary, I am nonetheless galled at how the company even tried.

Mollah’s foot is in an orthopaedic boot and he walks around on crutches

This is more infuriating when I come to learn that Mollah no longer lives in his dormitory because his manager refused to shift him from the fourth floor to the ground floor. Mollah is on crutches and he cannot climb stairs. Do employers have even the slightest shred of empathy for their workers?

The common narrative pushed by many people with regard to workers seeking new accommodation in times of dispute, is that they left the company’s quarters entirely of their own accord, and therefore the company no longer has any obligation to house them. Alex Au from TWC2 says, “MOM likes to speak of workers ‘running away’, as if it’s some kind of misdeed and certainly all the workers’ fault.”

“But here, we have a situation where the poor worker just couldn’t stay in the room assigned by the employer. How can you blame him for looking for an alternative?”

If the company won’t give him a room on a suitable floor, does it mean the company is freed from the cost of housing the worker? Shouldn’t the company now pay the bills for Mollah’s rented room?

As of now, Mollah still has his work permit but his fate is in limbo. He doesn’t know if the company will continue to pay him his medical leave wages. He does not know if his foot will heal fully or if he will forever be limping. There is no guarantee of future employment. The threat of repatriation is unspoken, yet it is heavy in the air. But Mollah still dares to dream. “I don’t care about money. I just want to work soon,” he says with circumspect determination.