By TWC2 volunteer Simon, based on an interview in June 2019

The smile, the milky, gurgling cry, even the sleepless nights. Those first few moments of parenthood are irreplaceable memories. But for Islam Md Rafiqul, proud father of a two-week-old daughter, those moments are shared only on the screen of his phone.

He understood he needed to leave his wife and child in Bangladesh while he worked on a construction job to support them. Coming from a farming family, Rafiqul was attracted by the $1,600 fixed monthly salary he could earn. But while he’s an 11-year veteran of working in Singapore, it quickly becomes apparent that the system remains a mystery to him.

Rafiqul’s tale of woe began on 19 February 2019 when he was working on a condominium construction site at Yishun.

“I working on pipe cutter, and pipe very difficult to cut,” he says. “Something broken. I wearing goggles, but broke piece hit my eye.” Rafiqul’s right eye was seriously injured by a flying fragment of pipe, despite the safety measure he took. His employer reacted quickly and rushed him by car to Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, where he had emergency surgery. Despite this, it is more than likely that he will lose vision in the eye.

More treatment is needed: “One operation already I go. Doctor says need two or three more operations.”

Put on medical leave, Rafiqul’s days are boring and depressing. Without anything to occupy himself with, time passes slowly, so he makes an effort to travel from his Sembawang dormitory to Little India a couple of times a week to enjoy a free meal from TWC2, and to spend time with his friends at the organisation’s Dayspace.

It’s never easy being far from family, in a foreign country. But life has become a whole lot more difficult since the accident. Rafiqul gets around in dark glasses now, not able to endure the pain of full sunlight. Even things that might seem like they should be simple are not. For example, he has two different eye drops to take, which his doctor has told him have to be kept cool, but Rafiqul has no access to a refrigerator in his dormitory. His life is paperwork right now, and he shuffles pay slips and doctors’ letters as he tells his story.

It’s the doctor’s letter that has proved to be the sticking point. It says he needs more surgery, but his employer is unwilling to accept that diagnosis. “Company say [they] not believe me that I cannot see,” he says. “Doctor say I need more operation. Two times give letter, boss say ‘I no believe’.” His employer does not accept the seriousness of his eye injury, and is not willing to pay for further surgery. Unfortunately, the doctor did not include the words ‘immediately and medically necessary’ in his letter, without which the asked-for operations could be considered elective surgery.

Elective surgery is not something for which employers can be compelled to pay, under current law.

In March, Rafiqul’s employer canceled his work permit, and he remains in Singapore on a Special Pass, which does not permit him to work. As required by law, his employer has to pay him for his medical leave so he is not totally without income.

Rafiqul is unsure of his rights. He’s shown his employer the doctor’s letter, but he hasn’t shown it to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Even if he did, it does not mean that MOM will be able to do anything to compel the employer to guarantee payment for the further surgery in the absence of the words “immediately and medically necessary”.

MOM may also point out that Rafiqul has engaged a lawyer. That being the case, it should be his lawyer pursuing the matter with the employer. Rafiqul however is of the view that his lawyer isn’t much help in getting him the operations and assisting him through the maze of bureaucratic requirements. Yet, he does not want to discharge the law firm from representing him.

Explains Alex Au, a senior volunteer with TWC2, “Many workers from the subcontinent feel a need to link up with a ‘protector’ when they are in difficulty. In these cultures, lawyers are considered very powerful people, able to give them protection from other powerful people such as employers.”

“His wish to stay with his lawyer, assuming that the lawyer is doing nothing, thus conflicts with his need for resolution of the surgery payment question.”

As we leave, Rafiqul is in conversation with TWC2 volunteers, who will explore all other possibilities with him. As we think of those photos of his daughter, we realise how many more challenges he has to face.