28 September 2015. It was raining heavily that day, recalled Mr. Wang, as he reported to his workplace, a construction site in Punggol. It happened very quickly: an unsupported ladder perched on the wet, slippery floor fell onto Mr. Wang, leaving him unconscious.
Waking up each day has been a nightmare for Mr. Wang (not his real name) ever since he sustained a left wrist fracture and head injury at work. A 35-year-old migrant worker from Hebei, China, Mr. Wang is finally able to recuperate his injuries after an arduous struggle with his employers. Matters such as workplace injury compensation and hospitalization leave plague injured migrant workers in Singapore and Mr. Wang is no exception. According to Mr. Wang, workplace safety was rarely emphasized at his construction site. And among those who were injured, some were not even adequately remunerated, but instead sent back to their home country.
According to statistics from the Workplace Safety and Health Report, 597 migrant and local workers suffered major workplace injury while 66 workers were fatally injured in 2015 alone.
Mr. Wang initially went to a private hospital for an open reduction and internal fixation paid for by his company. After surgery, Mr Wang did not receive an MC, but was instructed to perform ‘light duties’ instead (workers given light duty are not eligible for pay). Furthermore, his head injury was wholly dismissed by his attending physician as it was not formally reported by his employer to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Mr Wang soon realized that even ‘light duties’ at his construction site were impossible for his current state, and had to return to his physician to request for an official hospitalization leave, which he deserved in the first place.
To his horror, the nurse told him that he could not get an official medical certification as his company did not believe he was too injured to work.
“I was angry that the hospital was following the company’s order instead of relying on the doctor’s medical judgement.” Mr. Wang said as he thought about the troubles he had to endure since his injury began.
Many migrant workers leave their hometown and loved ones to travel thousand of miles to a foreign land hoping for a better tomorrow but are only rewarded with betrayal when they arrived. They live in dormitories with horrid conditions and have to work up to 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Mr Wang himself is the sole breadwinner of his extended family. Promised a higher salary and better living conditions, Mr Wang travelled to Singapore 3 years ago to provide for his wife, 2 children and his parents. Before his injury, his pay was decent and on-time; After his injury, Mr Wang’s employer frequently delayed his pay and denied his injuries. Mr. Wang aptly said that, “The moment I got injured, we (he and his company) became enemies”.
Mr Wang was introduced to HealthServe by his friends after his ordeal, and has been a prominent member of HealthServe’s community since then, where the organization helps injured migrant workers financially, socially, medically and legally. HeathServe has helped Mr Wang with liaising with MOM to investigate his workplace injury compensations and the legal documentations required. Mr Wang now visits Healthserve more than 20 times a month and is passionate in helping out as a volunteer in Healthserve
“I want to be able to volunteer in HealthServe, and help out others like me just like how they have helped me.”
Since its inception in 2007, HealthServe has helped over 5000 migrant workers in cases concerning basic healthcare and legal matters. From its humble beginning in Geylang, it has now expanded to 3 clinics in Singapore. However, its work is never done as there are thousands more out there similar to Mr. Wang.
Unless society as a whole can change their mindset towards migrant workers, we will never be able to achieve justice for them. As the great Ghandi once said “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”. Healthserve has taken the first step in initiating a change in the Singaporean stigma against migrant workers, and hopefully their concerted efforts will pay off to close the gap between the treatment of the marginalised workers and that of locals.
By Zou Xiangyu, Tan Chek Han, Seah Raynian, NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine Students