More Than Broken Bones

At HealthServe's Geylang office, it is a common sight to see men, primarily construction workers, on crutches, awkwardly navigating their way through our cramped office. We see arms in slings, fingers deformed, scars that tattoo the skin long after stitches have been removed. There are also many 'invisible' injuries - necks, shoulders, legs and backs that have suffered trauma and continue to hurt, joints that are no longer as elastic or capable.

The construction sector is the most dangerous industry in Singapore. It had the highest fatality injury rate in 2012 across sectors, and things only got worse in 2013, with a 27 per cent increase in construction fatalities. 

There were 2,587 reported injuries in the construction sector in 2013. This means there are, on average, 215 workplace injuries a month (or almost 50 injuries a week) on construction sites, a number likely to be under-reported. Cai*, who has worked in Singapore for almost eight years as a construction worker, believes up to half of workplace injuries do not get reported. This is especially so for new arrivals, who are easily threatened by employers and unfamiliar with the system. Cai, who fell from a height of eight metres, was hospitalised for almost a month his injury was not reported. His employer even told him to lie to the authorities, to say that he 'fell' while throwing out the rubbish. In fact, there was a serious safety lapse: while working on the third storey, someone had covered up a hole, big enough for a human to fall through, with a thin, flimsy board. It gave way when Cai stepped on it. 

Construction workers at HealthServe say they have little choice but to work under unsafe conditions, which are commonplace. Supervisors ('guan gongs') are hired specifically to discipline the men and ensure they achieve (or exceed) their work targets. Excessive workloads and productivity targets are also a common complaint and a key cause of workplace accidents. Explains another worker, Tao*: "If they can make two persons complete three persons' work, they will do it. If one person could do it? Better still!" Workers also talked about scaffoldings being built with lesser material than required, or unqualified persons driving machinery on the worksite. Heavy loads are carried with less persons, materials are sometimes thrown down instead of being moved with the appropriate machines. 

Sometimes, workers, despite being severely injured, must wait at their worksites for hours before the 'company lorry' arrives. They may have to plead to see doctors - or defy company orders in order to seek medical aid - and then face the prospect of not being able to retain their medical documents. Often, injuries strain employer-employee relations - an injured worker, after all, becomes a liability. Workers then need to battle for their entitlements as they wait for their work injury compensation - these include medical leave wages, living expenses and a roof over their heads. 

The construction industry in Singapore remains a key contributor to its economic growth. In 2013, construction demand hit an estimated record of $35.8 billion, with forecasts for this year estimated to reach up to $38 billion[1]. Meanwhile, land and property prices continue to boom, with $15 billion worth of luxury properties[2] - one rising up to 290m - expected in the coming years. Yet, as can be seen in the steady stream of injured and broken men who come through the doors of migrant worker organisations in Singapore, we have yet to fully acknowledge the true cost of our construction boom, when measured in the lives, limbs and well-being of those who labour in it.

-Stephanie Chok

Stephanie Chok recently completed her PhD about migrant workers in Singapore. She's now HealthServe's part-time researcher and case worker, and looks forward to resuming her role as resident 'kaypoh'.

Going Home Empty-Handed

Sometime in August this year, Liu, a Chinese worker, walked into HealthServe looking lost and perplexed. He had just come from his first conciliation session at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) during which his employer's representative fished out a document written in English which claimed his pay to be $4.50 per hour. A far cry from the $7 per hour he was promised.

All he had were scanty photocopies of his work cards on tattered pieces of paper documenting the hours he worked - they were all that the company allowed their workers to carry as documentation of the work done. His company kept the only available copy of his contract and the records of salary payments. At the conciliation, the MOM officer made clear to him that the onus was on him to produce the proof that he was paid $7 an hour. Never mind that the company kept all the records.

Shortly after that first session, Liu came by Geylang with his tools and luggage. His foreman, unhappy that he was pursuing his wage claims relentlessly, had asked someone to dispose of his belongings at a garbage dumpster. Liu became "homeless" and relied on the goodwill of friends to house him.

Stranded in Singapore due to a salary case and not allowed under the law to work in the meantime, Liu had little choice but to rely on HealthServe to provide his meals and cover some of his living expenses.

Liu thought he finally got what was due him when the labour court ruled in his favour. His employer was given two weeks to pay up and buy him an air ticket back to China. His "victory" was, however, short-lived - he never got the $5,000 before he flew home. His employer did not pay up despite the deadline given to him by MOM. His case was then swiftly wrapped up and he was asked to consider a civil suit by the authorities.

Liu has since left the execution of a Writ of Seizure to a pro-bono lawyer. But it remains to be seen if he will ever see the amount owed. A sum of money that he had laboured so hard for and was rightfully his. 

-Jevon Ng

Jevon Ng was a volunteer case worker. He now volunteers at our Tai Seng centre, conducting computer classes to South Asian workers.

Life in a Bin Centre

When I first met Akash* a few months ago, I couldn't help but spy a slightly tarnished ring on his finger and a worn-out Blackberry in his hand. Before I could ask him how he had acquired these items, he cheerily announced that he had picked them up from the rubbish bins at the bin centre where he worked. Then, making a sweeping gesture from his T-shirt to his sandaled feet, he proclaimed, "Everything I pick up!"

Somehow, I was not surprised. After all, Akash and other Bangladeshi cleaners like him spend the majority of their time in the bin centres located within the neighborhoods that they clean. More than a place to claim pre-loved possessions, however, these bin centres have also become for these Bangladeshi workers a place to rest, shower, and even cook their daily meals - activities that they carry out in the company of the day's refuse without batting an eyelid.

It was not always this way for them. "When I first came (to Singapore), I looked at it (the bin centre) and looked at my agent. You want me to spend the whole day there? But my agent said "when you go inside long enough you won't notice the smell anymore." Unfortunately, many Bangladeshi workers do go on to wearily accept things as they are.

Whether Akash and his compatriots become inured to their circumstances is hardly the point. The real issue is that tucked beneath the outward successes of our society are individuals who live in abysmal conditions. Ironically, they are the very people who keep the physical cleanliness of our housing estates. Yet most of these cleaners have no contracts, and often receive much less pay than they were promised in their home countries.

The past few months of befriending Akash and his friends have enabled me to realise how much of their lives I had failed to see: I had seen them as cleaners of my estate, but overlooked their day-to-day struggles, sacrificial love for their family members back home, and hopeful aspirations for the future. 

-Cheryl Sim

Cheryl Sim is a final-year student in Business and Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. She volunteers with HealthServe.

*Not his real name

When a Company Folds, Who Suffers?

In August, a group of workers from Yong Yi Lin Construction (2000) Pte Ltd had a dispute with their employer over delayed remuneration and went to MOM to seek recourse. To their horror, they discovered that their work permits had actually been cancelled a month earlier and so they had been working "illegally" for the past month. Yong Yi Lin Construction had not been paying their work levies for three consecutive months, leading to an early termination of their work permits by MOM.

The employer had kept the workers in the dark. Instead of announcing the cancellation of their work permits, they ordered them to continue working, even though they could no longer pay them. Ironically, it was the workers who suffered the consequences when it was the employer who broke the law; the workers were left to languish here while awaiting resolution to their salary disputes.

It soon dawned on the workers that their company was going to go bust. Most of them were still owed over two months' salaries ranging from about $2,000 to $4,000. For some of them, they were also owed their ya jin, commonly known in contracts as "security deposits" illegally deducted from their salaries. This sum of money, which amounted to $1,000, was to be returned to them at the end of their work stint here.

The parent company, Jing Yi Construction, was eventually pressured by the authorities to provide remuneration up to July. The insurance, which was to provide coverage in the event of a company's closure, returned each worker a sum ranging from $500 to $800 - a meager fraction of the amount owed.

It might seem that their cases were resolved quickly, but one would not be wrong to question whether the workers have been justly treated and their cases fairly resolved.

The investigation and conciliation sessions with MOM took about a month. More than 40 workers were affected, 23 of whom asked HealthServe for help in appealing to MOM for their salaries or for food to tide them over a difficult time. 

-Jevon Ng

Burn Victim's Road to Recovery

The night before Chun Ming left for China, he packed only one set of clothes. The rest of his luggage was filled with music books, muffin trays, filters and coffee powder.

In 2011, the 19-year-old from Henan province, China came to Singapore to work as a kitchen helper in a restaurant in Little India. He paid S$8,000 to an agent in China for a job that paid him $800 monthly with one day off a month.

Every month, he sent 80 per cent of his salary back home. He was the sole breadwinner of the family and worked hard to support his parents and nine-year-old sister. His father was permanently blinded from a work explosion when Chun Ming was only 14 and his responsibilities shifted. As rough as this sounds, the real tragedy happened last August, just five months after Chun Ming arrived in Singapore. While cutting vegetables in the kitchen, the industrial gas tank leaked and within seconds, there was a deafening explosion. A few workers were hurt, but Chun Ming suffered the most, with 60 per cent of his body burnt.

He spent almost a year in hospital and recuperating at a nursing home before he was able to walk and get his life back, but being unemployed, he was penniless. He needed to stay on in Singapore to await his work injury compensation.

Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) who was handling the case approached HealthServe for assistance with Chun Ming's basic medical care and accommodation. It was a mad scramble to find a place for him and more importantly, one he would be comfortable with. My husband, Teh Hsin and I offered to house him when we got to know his story. At first, Chun Ming kept to himself. With time though, we discovered he was interested in learning piano and making coffee. We signed him up for a short barista course where he learned how to make lattes and cappuccinos. My mother, an accomplished pianist and retired piano teacher, gave Chun Ming music lessons.

Over time, Chun Ming regained his confidence and learned to laugh again. Chun Ming came to our home a stranger. He left a son.

-Joyce Too, a volunteer with HealthServe