Left: Mutaleb; Right: two other workers at TWC2’s free meals program, The Cuff Road Project

By Ashwin Umapathi, based on an interview in August 2020

On 6 December 2019, Hossain Mohammed Mutaleb was drilling into walls to install metal pipes at the Fook Hai Building in Chinatown. Electrical cables would be strung through these pipes by his colleagues as soon as he was done. Life was fine. He had a job, a salary and the satisfaction of supporting his family.

Then everything changed. As he came down a ladder, he slipped off one of its rungs, landed on his right foot and injured his ankle.

A colleague contacted their boss, and, following the latter’s instructions, rushed Mutaleb to the nearest hospital. Since his first hospital visit, there have been two operations on his foot, paid for by the employer.

Although he joined Amway Aluminium in 2016, Mutaleb had worked in Singapore for about ten years in total as an electrician or electrician’s assistant. He has worked at places whose names are familiar to Singaporeans: Paya Lebar Airbase, the State Courts in Chinatown, and Marina Bay Sands.

Amway seemed like a decent employer to have. Mutaleb had been provided with housing and transport, as well as overtime pay – typically based on nothing more than trust and a verbal report by Mutaleb himself – in the event that he was asked to work “urgent jobs” after hours.

But, two months after the accident, support and goodwill evaporated. Mutaleb attempted to reach out to his boss for assistance, but, as he puts it, “I call boss, he no answer”. On the rare occasions that he was able to make contact, his boss would brush him off by claiming “Now I’m busy”.

So, for the past six months, Mutaleb couldn’t rely on his employer to cover his housing, food, and transportation expenses. There are also the costs of follow-up medical appointments.

Instead, he has had to ask his parents in Bangladesh to send money over, and borrow from his cousins Hira and Ershad, who are also working in Singapore — until Covid-19 struck, that is. His cousins are currently quarantined in Sembawang and Kranji dormitories respectively, and effectively unemployed too.

Mutaleb has thus had to seek help from non-governmental organisations Healthserve and Transient Workers Count Too in the form of food, rent money and healthcare. All it took was one injury and everything he could take for granted in life fell apart. Without the support of NGOs, he would easily have been rendered destitute, sleeping on the streets and scrounging through trash bins for scraps of discarded food.

Under the law, employers continue to be responsible for the basic necessities of workers until they are repatriated. Migrant workers should not simply be abandoned. Enforcement of the law however is another question.

Here are the relevant sections of the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations 2012:

Fourth Schedule, Part III, Section 2:

2. The employer shall provide safe working conditions and take such measures as are necessary to ensure the safety and health of the foreign employee at work. The employer shall also ensure the foreign employee has acceptable accommodation. Such accommodation must be consistent with any written law, directive, guideline, circular or other similar instrument issued by any competent authority.

Fourth Schedule, Part III, Section 11A:

11A. Except as the Controller specifies otherwise in writing, the employer is responsible for —

(a) the upkeep and maintenance of the foreign employee in Singapore, including the provision of adequate food and medical treatment; and

(b) bearing the costs of such upkeep and maintenance.