One recent evening, a young man came to Transient Workers Count Too with a problem. Let’s call him Malik. We had some difficulty in the conversation because he could hardly speak a word of English. Fortunately, another worker who happened to be close by volunteered to translate.

We learnt that Malik had been injured at work a few months prior. His question was whether a compensation claim under the Work Injury Compensation Act had been filed. This is something he could have asked his employer, but for reasons we’re not clear about, he had not or could not. It was also possible that he had asked, but didn’t understand or trust the answer he received. In the absence of language compatibility, it wasn’t possible to delve into the background.

In any case, with his permission, we could check the Ministry of Manpower’s online system for him. That we did and we ascertained that indeed a claim had been filed.

Given how common misperceptions are in the migrant worker community about how exactly the injury compensation system works, we then took some trouble to explain to him the process. More importantly, we had to stress that compensation would only be paid out if it was truly a workplace injury and if it resulted in permanent disability. We could only hope the other worker managed to translate all that clearly.

Our concern about misperceptions was heightened in this case because of his lack of English. In such a situation, it was more than likely that his only source of information about the injury claims process and entitlements came from hearsay from other Bangladeshi workers – hardly the most reliable source. In particular, two commonly held ideas are:

  • So long as an injury has occurred, there will be compensation. (Not true: if the patient makes a full recovery with no permanent disability, there will be no compensation beyond medical leave wages.)
  • So long as there is pain, this counts towards the quantum of compensation. (Not true: pain is subjective is not included in the formulae for determining compensation.)

In our brief conversation with Malik, he mentioned pain several times. This led us to stress that he should speak to his doctor about that to get proper pain management, but otherwise do not expect it to figure in any financial compensation.

TWC2 has volunteers who can help translate between Bengali and English, but they are only available when arranged in advance. Most of the time, they are not needed because the majority of Bangladeshi workers can manage well enough in their English.

Possible salary problem

Malik also mentioned salary underpayment or non-payment. However he could provide no details while sitting with us. He didn’t even have his In-Principle Approval (IPA) (see Glossary) with him, so we couldn’t even establish what his salary entitlement was, let alone whether he was correctly paid. We were concerned that he might not have kept his copy of the IPA, which could well weaken any claim he made in future.

We didn’t vocalise our thoughts, but we also wondered if he understood how salary was calculated. There are various formulae for overtime hours, working on rest days, etc, which take some serious concentration to grasp.

Six years of schooling

Meeting a youngish Bangladeshi worker with virtually no English is unusual. Even when Malik told us he was in the marine (shipyard) sector, it only partly explained the situation. Our observation is that Indian and Bangladeshi shipyard sector workers have much weaker English than construction sector workers.

Partly it is related to the fact that, at shipyards, crews are often exclusively of the same nationality. Day in, day out, workers in such crews have no need to use anything other than their native language. Construction workers, on the other hand, often find themselves at worksites with workers from other contractors, and these other workers may be from a different country. They have no choice but to practice their English when coordinating their work with them.

Another factor lies in the fact that construction workers have to pass the Basic Skills test before they can come to Singapore to work. For Bangladeshis, the test is in English. Shipyard workers do not have to pass such a test; thus the imperative to read some English and understand oral instructions is not there.

In Malik’s case, we learned that he had only six years of schooling. This is far below what construction workers typically have under their belt – 10 to 12 years – which implies a lot more lessons in English as a second language while in secondary school. Whilst we don’t have a good fix on what the average number of school years a marine trades worker has, our sense, anecdotally, is that it would be something like 8 to 9 years. Malik’s six years would be even below that.

Safety concerns

After Malik left, TWC2 volunteers discussed this encounter among themselves. One volunteer said, “If he doesn’t have enough English, there are safety risks.”

Indeed, how is he to understand instructions from more senior personnel (likely of a different nationality) especially in an emergency situation? Even for mundane tasks, can he read labels of various containers of dangerous chemicals? Can he read printed operating instructions for the equipment he has to operate?

As Singapore tries to raise productivity and improve our safety record, this question of minimum educational standard and competency in English has to be addressed. With the possible exception of cleaners and sanitation workers, who don’t normally have to operate heavy dangerous equipment, it seems to us that we should be setting some kind of minimum at ten years of schooling.

The erroneous stereotype

That Malik, with only six years of schooling, struck us as unready for working life in Singapore, reveals how off the mark one stereotype is: that migrant workers are less-educated dirt-poor farmers coming here to do industrial work.

In the main, they are not. They may be from the smaller towns, but they tend to be the smarter ones from among their cohorts. At least in the case of construction workers, that their families were able to raise the money to pay for their ridiculously expensive Basic Skills course tells us too that they come from a stratum of society with access to capital.