Life after Singapore: The ship welder from Bangladesh

Life after Singapore: The ship welder from Bangladesh
Since his return to Bangladesh in early 2010, Mr Shahabuddin (left) has spent half his insurance money fixing up his house in Dhaka and the rest on buying a provision shop, a 10-minute walk from his house. His older son tends the shop while he works as a welder at a garment factory.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

At his welding job in a garment factory in Bangladesh's capital of Dhaka, Md Shahabuddin fuses together steel sheets, repairs iron pipes and works in searing heat - with his bare hands.

For nine hours a day, six days a week, earning the equivalent of $280 a month, the 45-year-old father of three goes about his dangerous duties, his mind on Singapore.

"I think about going back (to Singapore) all the time," said Mr Shahabuddin, who worked as a welder for an engineering firm in the Republic between 2006 and 2008 for $600 a month. "The money was good, hours were good."

Having Singapore on his mind also keeps him on his toes, he said when The Sunday Times visited him in Dhaka last month for this Insight feature. For it was only in Singapore, 20 years after he started working as a welder at the age of 16 in Bangladesh, that he first put on protective gloves and safety goggles. And he knows only too well the consequences of getting injured at work .

Two years after he had arrived in Singapore, after settling in and finally able to enjoy steady work and pay at a firm, a subcontractor at a shipyard in Sembawang, his dreams of creating a better life for himself and his family back home were shattered.

One rainy day in September 2008, he injured his back and broke a bone in his right leg after he missed a step on the ladder of a ship he was working on. As he fell on his right side, a sharp pain ran through him. "I couldn't stand," he said. He had to be lifted out from where he had fallen into by crane.

The accident came just 20 days after he had signed on for a two-year contract. His life unravelled, leading to him suing his employers - whom he declined to name. He found himself living on the streets, jobless and homeless. He was not formally dismissed from his job, but his contract was terminated when he did not return to work.

Eventually, he filed his own work injury compensation claim with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and received $12,250. But the whole process dragged on for more than a year.

AFTER THE ACCIDENT

Mr Shahabuddin was sent by his company to a private hospital in Jurong where many injured foreign workers are treated for workplace accidents, and there they found that he had a hairline fracture.

He received treatment and his leg was put in a cast. Subsequently, he was given crutches, then discharged and sent to a supervisor's house in Sembawang. He did not return to his foreign workers' dormitory in Jurong East.

Mr Shahabuddin claimed he was told that he was not allowed to leave the house, even to take a breather. At the time, he was not aware of his medical leave status. "My leg was swollen. Later, I learnt that I was given only two days off," he told The Sunday Times. He said his boss called him to say he would be staying at the house because there "is no one to take care of you at the dormitory".

"I was very scared. I felt like I had done something wrong," he recalled, adding that there were two other injured workers at the house. "The men there told me that I might be sent back (to Bangladesh) after a couple of days because the company was worried that they had to report the accident to the MOM to get my injury claim. My boss didn't want a black mark (for safety)."

The company had a previous record of safety breaches and was afraid it might be barred from hiring more foreign workers, Mr Shahabuddin later found out.

The men also gave him a lawyer's contact to help with his injury claims. Workers who are hurt at workplaces can either apply for damages through MOM under the Work Injury Compensation Act (Wica), or take legal action against their employers.

The next day, Mr Shahabuddin left the house and went to a lawyer in Serangoon. He then decided to file a suit against his employer.

That afternoon, a bewildered Mr Shahabuddin limped around the streets. "I really had no place to sleep in, and no money," he said. In the end, "I went to look for a relative from my village and stayed with him for the night. I also borrowed about $200 from him."

In the days after, "people (from the engineering firm) kept calling me", he said. "I turned off my phone. I didn't know who to trust. I had no one."

His lawyer said he needed his medical records to file the claim. Mr Shahabuddin was afraid of returning to the private hospital - "I was scared they would call my boss" - so he went instead to Alexandra Hospital. He needed a doctor's signature regarding his condition and to certify he was indeed unable to work.

ADRIFT IN SINGAPORE

Mr Shahabuddin found himself with no job - his boss told him the company would no longer take care of him now that he had taken legal action against it, he said.

He had no income after losing his monthly pay. Gone was his routine in the previous two years where "I could send home about $400 every month". He said: " We paid back the $5,500 we owed the agent quickly. I really thought my life was getting better. All I wanted to do was to work harder for my family."

As for all that money he had sent back home - that was used up. This was also because the company had asked him to pay $2,500 when he renewed his contract. It is an illegal practice, but Mr Shahabuddin said he paid up, thinking that the investment was worth it. "It was all my savings at home," he said.

He had no belongings - he had left his clothes, mobile phone charger and photographs of his family on his bed at the dormitory.

And he had no home. Desperate, he used the money he borrowed from his relative to rent a bed near Mustafa Centre for $120 a month. But the money ran out after a month, and he roughed it out in places like Kallang Park for four months with a homeless Bangladeshi national he had met who was in a similar situation. "I could not borrow any more money from my friends and relatives here," he said. "They also had their own problems.

"I tried to explain to my wife my situation. She kept crying. We had no money. My babies were crying."

He turned to the Cuff Road Project, a food programme for migrant workers organised by non-profit Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), for meals. Over time, he ended up volunteering at TWC2, and stayed with it for about nine months as his injuries healed.

He dropped the suit against his employers, deciding to file a claim through MOM, "because my lawyers were fierce and unhelpful". After filing the claim, he was able to stay in Singapore on a special pass for workers waiting for their cases to be heard.

Eight months or so later, the claim was found eligible for compensation under the Wica, and he received $12,250.

He flew home with a heavy heart, with an air ticket he paid for himself. "I was very sad. I wanted to continue working," he said. However, while he was unemployed, he was charged with a littering offence. "I am scared that I cannot come back to Singapore to work any more."

He could not pay the $400 fine and opted to stay in jail for two days instead. But he accepted his punishment willingly: "I am in someone else's country - I should respect the rules of the land."

LIFE AFTER SINGAPORE

Since his return to Bangladesh in early 2010, Mr Shahabuddin has spent half his insurance money fixing up his house in Dhaka and the rest on buying a provision shop, a 10-minute walk from his house.

Mr Shahabuddin and his older son, Mr Raihan, 23, who tends the provision shop, make about $85 a month from the business. Including Mr Shahabuddin's factory income, the $365 in total "is barely enough for my family", he said. He lives with his wife, their three children, his daughter-in-law and granddaughter, and his younger son Raihat, 18, who was born prematurely, has difficulty moving around.

Mr Shahabuddin has tried going abroad again to work, this time in Muscat in Oman. But he came back four months later, as the construction company he was working for did not pay him. "I couldn't ask for help from anyone. I didn't know how to, so I quit and came back."

A stint as a rickshaw driver in Dhaka ended after five months when he had a traffic accident.

But there was a bright spot - in a job he held for two years, working as a programme coordinator at a local non-profit organisation earning $400 a month. It involved helping Bangladeshi workers leaving to work in Singapore. He conducted checks on the hiring companies and shared his experience in Singapore with the workers. "The two things I always tell them are to respect the laws, which include not littering, and to always watch out for safety when they are at work," he said.

But the non-profit organisation closed down in 2013. He then landed his current job at the garment factory, where he gets only Fridays off - to go to the mosque for afternoon prayers. It is a contrast to Singapore, where he worked only five days a week, and got double pay on Saturdays and Sundays.

At the end of Insight's interview, Mr Shahabuddin shook his head, held his calloused hands together, and said: "If I stay in Bangladesh, my family situation will never improve. I cannot give them a good life. We will forever be poor.

"But if I go, what if I meet a bad employer who doesn't pay me? What if I get injured again?

"I'm not sure what kind of a choice this is," he said.

awcw@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on December 13, 2015.
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