By Sun Hanchen, based on an interview in January 2018
I wrote about Rajan (not his real name) in an earlier story “Worker asks for reimbursement of medical bills, sets off chain of events”. In this story, I will recount his work history, to give readers a glimpse into a foreign worker’s experience in Singapore through the years.
Rajan worked as a rigger/signalman in a major multinational oil and gas firm. He first stepped foot in Singapore in February 2008. Interviewed in 2018, this would be his tenth year in Singapore. Single and without children, most of the money he earns is remitted back home to his parents. Unfortunately, an accident following a lapse in workplace communication more than a year ago has disrupted his career – and left him in limbo, feeling lost, and uncertain about the future.
Rajan was introduced to Singapore by his brother-in-law, who has 20 years of experience here. He tells me of the first time he touched down in Singapore. “First time, very uneasy, don’t know many things, country don’t know…” The stark difference between Singapore and his home country would not have helped in his adjustment either. For someone who has had no prior experience, going abroad, it certainly would have been very intimidating for him. Thankfully, there was a “Construction Orientation Course” arranged for him, which gave him an overview about Singapore, our laws and customs.
His 8.5 years of working here were largely uneventful, bar the low pay – at the start, he was given a salary of $16 a day for eight hours of work with $3 more for every hour of overtime. This translated to about $750 to $800 for 26 days of labour each month, inclusive of overtime. Staying in the company’s dormitory, most of the money he earned was remitted back home.
With more experience in the job, his salary was raised to $22 per day, with overtime at $4.13 per hour. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was all provided for, of good quality and diligently used on site.
All in all, Rajan’s was a rather average experience, without anything notable – pay off the agent fee, remit money monthly, and eventually earn enough to return back to his hometown.
Despite high quality PPE, a worksite of narrow pathways and a noisy environment filled with dust was never without risk. Communication errors were rife and mobility often impaired. Poor communication, indeed, was the reason for Rajan’s accident. Having been tasked to carry a long pipe, Rajan and his colleague had to pass through an extremely narrow space. Rajan needed to change his position in order for the pipe to fit the space, but his repeated cries to his colleague were lost in the tumult of the environment.
“He push, I pull……. I hit, I fall down,” Rajan explains, gesticulating slightly as he details the sequence of events leading to his injury. Landing on his back resulted in a fracture of the L4-L5 vertebrae, and to add to that, his right hand was also injured in the accident.
My earlier article details what happened after the accident, and his long ordeal in getting adequate treatment and compensation. As at the time of this interview, it’s not over yet.
Keeping it from his parents
Back home, his family has no idea that he is going through such adversity. In fact, he has not even told them that he was injured in a worksite accident — which is why we’re using a pseudonym in this article. He’s kept it a secret from his parents for over a year. It’s an uneasy silence.
“My mother will cry,” Rajan shares with me. His parents obviously have been very concerned for him, ever since he stepped foot in Singapore. It is not unexpected, for his work brings with it a huge amount of risk.
In the years that he has worked in Singapore, he has gone back only three times, none which were within the past five years. Each time they call him to ask when he will be back, his reply is the same – he tells them that he will return in “a few days” – but obviously, there is nearly zero possibility that it will happen soon.
“They calling calling, I say, company no job, no sending back money,” Rajan tells his parents. It is out of his control, he says. This way, there is no need for him to reveal the extent of his injuries, and the limbo he is stuck in – with both his physical impairment and his Special Pass limiting him from seeking alternative employment. Wrought with uncertainty about the future, he is unable to do anything about his predicament either. He can only wait, and wait, and wait.
“What I do, I also don’t know what to do.”
“I just crying, I go back, I don’t know what to do.”
Meanwhile, his injury compensation case drags on — it’s been well over a year since the accident — with no certainty of a successful outcome.
Ten years ago, when Rajan landed in Singapore, he hoped to earn enough to provide for his parents back at home. Although the pay was meagre by local standards, it was still far more than he could earn staying put. Now, it is rather ironic that the opposite situation is happening – the lack of money has meant that his extended family has had to support him in Singapore. Rajan has been fortunate to receive some financial support from his brother-in-law (the same relative who introduced him to Singapore).
However, not everybody has loved ones to rely on for money when faced with such a situation. For Rajan, it’s about the only lucky thing in sixteen months of despair. His employer has been obstructive, and bureaucratic procedures have been convoluted and very time-consuming. Penniless and stuck in Singapore, his fate is largely out of his hands.