By TWC2 volunteer Nicholas Tee, based on an interview in September 2020
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Forhad Dewan and his fellow workers – who were working and living at a construction site for a new condominium development in Katong – were placed under strict lockdown conditions similar to the rest of the country. For construction workers like him, the lockdown would last four months, during which time he received only $400 a month from his employer, far less than his usual salary.
Naturally, he was glad that work at the site could resume in August 2020.
Barely a month later, on 8 September, his hopes of normality were dashed. Forhad broke his right thumb in a work-related accident. While dismantling formwork, a piece of rope that he was holding on to curled around his thumb just as a metal beam that was attached on the other end collapsed. Forhad says that the injury was “[his] bad luck. 22 years of working, I no injury [until now]”.
Forhad has since been on medical leave unable to return to work.
Wanting to file an injury compensation claim, Forhad decided ten days later to engage a lawyer to help him through the process. Although the lawyer was recommended to him by his Bangladeshi friends, he had little knowledge of this law firm’s track record as he was not personally acquainted with any of the lawyer’s other clients.
The lockdown budget
During the lockdown, a big part of the $400 he received went to food. As he was not allowed to cook in the dorm during this period — he wouldn’t anyway have been able to go out to buy groceries — this meant that he had to pay $140 a month to a caterer to supply daily meals.
Forhad explains, with only a measly $260 left over, how he budgeted his money:
$60 for his various living costs including his monthly mobile phone bill.
$100 for his own personal spending in Singapore.
$100 to send home to his family in Bangladesh.
Fortunately, accommodation costs were covered by the employer.
The $100 he could send home had to support his large family. Forhad has five children – two daughters who are honours students in university, another two daughters in high school and an 11-year-old son – and his eyes light up and he becomes visibly excited when talking about his family. Smiling behind his mask and beaming with pride, he tells me that he only talks to them every two or three days but is trying to make the effort to connect with them more.
The monthly $400 is considerably less than what he used to get pre-Covid, when work was at full swing. His basic salary alone was $500 a month and with overtime, he could make $600 – $700, he tells me. However, even this seems terribly low, considering that Forhad, now 50, has worked in Singapore for a total of 22 years.
On the bright side, Forhad has not had to come to TWC2 for help in all these years. Tonight is his first time at our free meals programme (The Cuff Road Project) hoping to access some support.
A previous housemate (and former TWC2 client) had told him that “any problem, any company problem [TWC2] can settle”.
We get nervous when people have such expectations. Though we have many support programmes in place to address the variety of migrant worker issues, the reality of a resource-scarce organisation staffed mostly by volunteers means that this is not always the case.
The fact that he has already engaged a lawyer to represent him makes it rather tricky. It is not appropriate for TWC2 to intervene in Forhad’s case, now going through the Ministry of Manpower and the insurer. There shouldn’t be two parties representing him.
So we tell Forhad there is little we can do to support him beyond TWC2’s free meals programme because he already has a lawyer. Forhad appears unaware of the technicalities in navigating his injury claim, particularly the need to avoid conflict between his legal representative and us in trying to help him.
Contrary to popular belief, TWC2 cannot serve as a one-stop shop to settle “any problem, any company problem” for the multitudes of migrant workers here and, as this case illustrates, for good reason too. Nevertheless, the fact that the reputation of TWC2 has spread by word of mouth within migrant worker communities is a testament to the importance and success of the continued advocacy and outreach work that TWC2 does.