By volunteer Lloyd C, based on an interview in February 2020.

Islam Md Robeul lost his job without any notice in mid-December 2019.

“I sick, and doctor gave me two days MC,” he tells TWC2, using the initials MC (“medical certificate”) to mean medical leave formally prescribed by a doctor. “But boss say he allow only one day.”

Although at first sight it does not seem like a big deal, the dispute escalated very quickly to immediate cancellation of his Work Permit. Perhaps harsh words were exchanged. The boss even arranged an air-ticket to send him back to Bangladesh with little notice. But Robeul says he missed the flight — whether that was intentional or unintentional is not clear.

Even if he had no intention to board the flight, he had good reason, as became clear when he lodged a report at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). He was advised that he was entitled to claim for seven days’ wages in lieu of notice. Summary dismissal without going through “show cause” procedure or giving notice as specified in the Employment Act is not allowed.

On second thoughts, it is a big deal. The week of the interview with Robeul, headlines everywhere are about the Covid-19 virus, which is proving to be an easily transmitted pathogen. China has shut down a city of 11 million people and virtually quarantined an entire province. Cases have appeared in Singapore and close contacts of all those who have tested positive are also put into quarantine for 14 days. These measures are meant to limit the spread of the virus.

This is not to say that Robeul was infected with the Covid-19 coronavirus. His MCs and the altercation with his boss occurred in December 2019, before anyone had even heard of the new virus.

But the point is that it is irresponsible for employers to demand that doctors’ orders be ignored, and insist that sick workers return to work.

Such unreasonable and feckless employer practices are surprisingly common. Last November, a fellow volunteer interviewed two workers with similar experiences. See the article Two workers asked to choose between seeing a doctor and keeping their jobs.

After interviewing Robeul, I ask six random workers standing in line for TWC2’s free meals whether their employers also have a similar policy limiting their sick days and requiring them to return to work, MCs notwithstanding. Four men say yes, their employers have such policies too; one says he has heard about such a rule from co-workers but don’t actually know for sure. Only one worker in the queue is certain his employer has no such rule.

Denying workers adequate rest to recover from an illness is unethical. Insisting that they return to work despite doctors’ orders pose a risk of spreading infectious diseases. Employers should be taken to task for adopting such policies. MOM should also do its part and proactively clamp down on such “company policies”.

The ban must also cover variations of the policy.

One variation, as recounted by a worker in the queue, has a company imposing a “fine” for missing any day of work. This fine is deducted from the monthly wages, and is applied even if there is an MC or even if a worker takes a couple of hours off to go to a clinic. Presumably, such policies are intended to discourage workers from being absent for whatever reason, but the effect is to deter workers from even seeing a doctor when they are ill. So workers try to self-medicate and not get medical help until the condition becomes serious. If it is infectious, several more co-workers will have come done with the same condition before long.

Robeul however is calm about the matter. Unlike other workers who often get agitated when they recount the injustices they have suffered, Robeul tells his story in a matter-of-fact way. The reason soon becomes clear. He has found new employment and hopes to start work very soon.

I wish him the best in his new job, but I can’t shake off the feeling that the matter shouldn’t end here. Such employment practices are wrong. They can turn a difficult-to-manage disease into an uncontrollable epidemic.