By TWC2 volunteer Gillian Chan, based on an interview in July 2020

Two months into his time working for Cheng Jiu Construction, Bangladeshi migrant worker Shahabuddin suffered a frustrating setback. On 23 August 2019, an incident occurred at his worksite that resulted in an injury to his back, neck and right elbow, necessitating medical attention. Immediately, he was accompanied by the onsite safety supervisor to a nearby clinic where he was recommended to Tan Tock Seng Hospital for proper care.

Now, ten months later, his employer has covered his medical expenses, and Shahabuddin is awaiting conclusion of his injury compensation claim filed with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

Summarised in this way, Shahabuddin’s experience with injury as a migrant worker in Singapore reads as relatively straightforward. But to take this reading is to obscure the extent to which the fog of the unknown envelopes the path a migrant worker must navigate after an accident. This is primarily a story about navigating the unknown.

The boss

Shahabuddin tells us that his “boss works in supply” — meaning that his official employer is a manpower supply company. The company itself does not put its employees to work on its own projects; it “lends” them to other contractors needing extra manpower. Because of this arrangement, when Shahabuddin was injured on the job, his official employer was not there to know about it and was not involved in the initial period of medical treatment.

Instead, Shahabuddin was funneled through the process accompanied by a slew of people whose official affiliations remain to this day unclear to him. What he does know (and tells us) is that those who accompanied him from the site to the clinic and hospital and dealt with the ensuing procedures failed to disclose even the occurrence of the accident to Shahabuddin’s official employer for over a month.

His official employer is “a good man,” Shahabuddin repeatedly assures us. “He is a good boss to me,” he adds, perhaps trying to explain that if there was any lapse, it was simply because the boss had not been informed. One cannot pay for bills that have not been disclosed, nor take responsibility for an accident that has not been reported.

This lack of clear communication between the various higher-ups responsible for the wellbeing of their employees introduces the first misting of confusion into Shahbuddin’s account.

The lady

But it doesn’t stop there; the fog builds. Shahabuddin tells us he has hired a lawyer at some point during this whole process. Strange, given that there is no fight being put up by the parties involved. His employer appears cooperative, has paid medical bills where necessary (Shahbuddin tells us) and the relationship between the boss and worker seems to be at the very least amicable.

So why hire a lawyer for a dispute that doesn’t exist?

We find that Shahabuddin had, at some point during his time receiving medical treatment, been in contact with a “lady” (as he refers to her) who exacerbated a latent fear most migrant workers harbour at all times – that of deportation. Shahabuddin describes how “the lady” told him that he was at risk of having his contract terminated and would be sent back home to Bangladesh as a result, presumably with neither treatment nor compensation. The identity and role of this lady remains a mystery to him. Whether she works for his official employer or his secondment company, whether she is an employee of the hospital or medical centre is unknown. She could even be a salesperson for a law firm drumming up business.

Nonetheless, her presence and words served to thicken the brume of uncertainty. Is this something to be worried about?

If one sets the señora’s words against the seeming lack of response from his official employer in the early days after the incident, Shahabuddin’s fear-induced seeking of legal representation makes about as much sense as anything else.

The lawyer

So now there is a lawyer involved – introduced to Shahabuddin by a friend of his in the dormitory – and with the lawyer comes yet another wave of foggy confusion in the form of legal fees.

When we inquire as to the rate being charged for legal services rendered — whatever those may be in a circumstance such as this — he tells us that he does not know. As of July 2020, nine months after being retained, his lawyer has yet to inform Shahabuddin what the charges will be.

The employer is not contesting any payments; all the correct paperwork has been filed with MOM, and in fact, a Notice of Assessment (see explanation in Glossary) has been issued. The Work Injury Compensation claim proceeded smoothly through medical and MOM channels and by all accounts, there was no need for a lawyer. Yet,  legal fees are being incurred — fees which will total a yet-to-be-explained amount.

Shahbuddin’s tale shows us what a quiet luxury it is to even know: who to call; how to sort out medical leave; how insurance will cover medical bills; how to file a claim; what the responsibilities of the employer are; etc. Migrant workers in Singapore face a multitude of obstacles, and the first one is to be mired in fog.