FOREWORD: For years, Transient Workers Count Too has been speaking out against the revolving door practices behind Singapore’s foreign labour. At the slightest unhappiness, employers are quick to send workers home and recruit fresh new faces. Why do they do this? Because they can. Singapore law gives employers total discretion when to terminate employees, there’s no need even to provide valid reasons.
However, such behaviour does not come cost-free. Singapore loses workers that have gained experience and have better adjusted to this multi-cultural city’s social norms. In exchange, we get a new workers with less skill. It’s hardly any wonder that our productivity is unacceptably low, especially in the foreign worker-dominated construction sector.
TWC2 Zhi Feng’s interview with Lavlu illustrates how such a loss of skill and experience occurs at a micro level. What looks like a rational business decision by one boss adds to other similar decisions by other bosses, resulting in an economic cost to the country as a whole.
By Jiang Zhi Feng, based on an interview in November 2017
Despite having five years of experience working for the same company, Haque Mohammad Lavlu’s Work Permit was cancelled by his employer after his right little finger was injured. This situation is regrettable because Lavlu is an experienced worker. Instead of waiting for him to quickly recover, the decision to lay him off is not only inefficient — for the company and for Singapore — but has caused Lavlu unnecessary worry.
Lavlu describes himself as the “most experienced” plumber among his fellow workers. Since 2012, he has fixed underground pipes and sewage lines for condominiums, houses and Housing Development Board flats. As he has been working for the same plumbing company ever since he came to Singapore to work, he says he is adept at his plumbing job. His competency can be inferred from the fact that when “other workers don’t know, they ask me how to do.”
Unfortunately, on 1st August 2017, Lavlu injured his finger while carrying a heavy metal pipe. It was too heavy. He dropped it on a pile of metal pipes and got his finger crushed in between the pipes. “Nail came out. Blood all over. Pain. Skin come out already,” is how Lavlu describes his injury. Pointing to his left little finger, he says, “This one good one. Different from the right one. I cannot do anything. Now still pain. After three months still pain.”
When I ask Lavlu why this might be the case, he laments that his doctor initially advised him to undergo surgery as his finger bone is crushed and has split open. However, “after boss talked to doctor, only nail removal. No bone surgery,” says Lavlu. Had his employer followed the doctor’s recommendation, not only might Lavlu have quickly and fully recovered, Lavlu could have returned to work. This would have benefited his employer. According to Lavlu, it takes around “two years to learn and understand” the work. Experienced workers aren’t easy to replace.
Lavlu was given two months’ medical leave and ‘light duty’ by the doctor. However, his employer insisted that he continue working, he tells me. Strictly speaking, Lavlu should have been assigned light tasks that do not involve using the injured hand, in keeping with the doctor’s orders, but Lavlu says, “light duty don’t have. Still have to carry heavy pipes. Finger pain. Cannot bend. How to do?”
It soon became a conflict situation with his boss. Lavlu’s account is that when he tried to explain that it was painful for him to do as asked, his boss blatantly told him that if he “cannot do, go back [to Bangladesh].” Things came to a head on 19 August 2017, when his boss told him to leave the dormitory altogether.
TWC2 volunteer Alex Au comments that “even if the doctor gives him light duty, he can still act as a trainer to instruct the other new workers on how to do their job properly. He can still be an asset. It’s a shame that employers generally don’t see it this way.”
For Lavlu, what worries him most is his inability to take of his parents back at home. “Father, mother cry. How do I help?” Lavlu sighs. Going home — and eventually he must, once treatment and his compensation claim is concluded — isn’t much of a solution. “I go back, I die already, you know.” He worries about how to feed his family. “How to give father mother makan? Money don’t have, how to tahan?” He worries about how they will all survive.
Working as a plumber is not easy, yet Lavlu would much rather be at work — notwithstanding the “dirty, smelly” sewage pipes, which leave his “hand dirty” and where he only “put mask for hygiene” — to the current state of uncertainty. Lavlu says, “If money have, I don’t come Singapore.”
“If money don’t have, must come Singapore. If money don’t have, pang sai [faeces], hand must hold.”