By Liang Lei, based on interviews conducted in Feb 2019

Home – a personal space. A fleeting sliver of timeless refuge after a long day of work. A safe haven.

Does this hold true for foreign workers who have suffered work-related injuries? According to Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM), employers are obliged to guarantee proper accommodation for their foreign employees. This ensures a shelter over the workers’ heads, at least while they are actively employed.

However, these workers’ housing welfare and security often take unexpected turns for the worse, when they become incapacitated through work-related injuries and other incidents. Due to the complexity of their circumstances, there exists no “standard” housing trouble these foreign workers face. Consequentially, there may be no silver bullet in addressing their worries.

Here are three stories of three foreign workers’ vastly different housing experiences after they met with work-related injuries. With each man I ask what they think of moving back to company housing.

Transport woes a key factor driving Yousuf out

After a fall at work on April 26, 2018 that left his back and right shoulder in debilitating pain, Yousuf found himself having to travel to Khoo Teck Puat hospital regularly for treatment and rehabilitation therapy.

Yousuf had to depend on his employer to send the company lorry to take him to the hospital. With his injuries, he could barely walk, let alone travel by himself to the hospital on public transport.

However, his relationship with the management soon soured. “I ask for lorry, they give in two hours, four hours, or sometimes never give,” Yousuf laments.

The alternative for Yousuf was to join the early morning pickup that took his colleagues to work, before asking the driver for a detour to the hospital. In this case, he often had to wait in the hospital for hours before his scheduled appointment time. The third way would be to take a taxi, but the times Yousuf resorted to this mode of transport to reach his appointments, his manager refused to refund any of the costs incurred.

Finally, in May 2018, after getting his two months’ worth of salary and his medical leave wages, he left his company accommodation to share an room with a friend, where he is still residing at time of interview.

Several factors made Yousuf’s continued stay in company accommodation tricky. Not only were there transport issues, his boss had given him the cold shoulder for four straight days after his injury. Yousuf also says that the company attempted to repatriate him home prematurely.

Yousuf dismisses my hypothetical question of returning to company housing if allowed to. His priorities were apparent. “Cannot, company house far from bus stop [to travel to the hospital],” is his reasoning.

“If we don’t settle, you go back Bangladesh.”

A midnight interrogation certainly sounds far-fetched, but that was exactly what Hossain had to endure after a fall at work and a subsequent fall-out with his manager.

In a freak incident, Hossain, a construction worker from Bangladesh, scored a finger while cutting rebar at work on August 15, 2018 and fell 1.5 metres, landing on his left shoulder. Despite recommendations from a clinic physician to continue treatment at a hospital, Hossain’s manager objected to it and sent him back to his dormitory instead.

The next day, still in excruciating pain and unable to get through to his manager, Hossain took himself to the hospital to get help. He would later lodge an incident report with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) without informing his manager.

Hossain’s actions did not go down well with his company. One night, while sleeping in his dormitory, he was rudely woken up by three men barging in and demanding an explanation for his actions. “Very fierce,” Hossain describes their demeanour. “Why you do case [with the MOM]? If we don’t settle today, you go back Bangladesh,” he mimed. By “settle”, the intruders meant withdrawing the accident report. If Hossain didnt do as demanded, they would forcibly repatriate him, regardless of the fact that he still needed medical treatment.

The last straw was when, while returning to his dormitory, Hossain was met by his supervisor who shot an angry “Why you coming here?” at him. That marked the end of Hossain’s stay in his company housing. He has since been living with his brother in another apartment for about two months.

“If they let you go back company house, you go?” I venture.

Hossain was markedly hesitant in his answer. After a pause, all he manages is: “Got these issues…”

A silver lining

Luckily, not all foreign workers are compelled to leave company-sponsored housing after getting injured.

Nobi was a construction worker who was put out of job on May 24, 2018 by a crushed finger sustained at work. Initially, he faced some lacklustre treatment from his employer – incident report not submitted to MOM after two months, hospital bills not paid for and rumours about his possible repatriation to Bangladesh.

Nobi’s biggest shock came when he learnt that his Work Permit had been cancelled. He learnt this not from his employer, but from a surprise police check. Fortunately, the police brought him to MOM, where he could file his injury case and was then issued a Special Pass to continue staying in Singapore for medical treatment. Notably, the MOM officer also told Nobi’s employer that he was not allowed to leave Nobi without accommodation in Singapore.

As of the interview, Nobi was still living in his company dormitory.

“How’s things between you and your boss?” I enquire.

“Ok-ok, not good, not bad.”

“You want to stay company housing or outside housing now?” If he lives out, he will have to pay rent out of his own pocket.

“Company,” he says. “I poor, need to recover, need to work, for future, for family.”

Contradictions and reflections

The issue of injury and housing for foreign workers is highly contradictory. On one hand, work injury and housing issues seem mostly unrelated. If anything, proper housing should be a key factor in supporting a patient’s recovery. However, in the case of foreign workers, it seems quite common for employers to exhibit knee-jerk reaction and compel injured workers to leave their dormitories instead. When a worker files an injury claim at MOM, the boss treats it as an intolerable affront that merits retribution.

In response, MOM has been applying enormous pressure on employers to continue housing their injured workers and on workers to return to their dorms. This seems great at face-value, until the complexity of returning to a potentially unwelcoming environment is factored in.

How, then, do we factor in all the nuances of home, security, comfort and responsibility to ensure that our foreign workers get the safe haven they deserve?