Bread. March 2007
Life in construction
Prapad wanted to be a welder, but prior to coming to Singapore from
Thailand, he had trained as a carpenter. Informally, a fellow Thai
construction worker had taught him how to weld, but he needed to prove
himself to his supervisor.
He asked his supervisor if he could do the welding that day and got a 'yes' for an answer. Here's the welding set. There were no visors. It didn't matter. Prapad put on his sunglasses and proceeded to weld.
Three days later, he told his Singaporean boyfriend about it and about how his eyes hurt. The boyfriend was horrified to hear the story and promptly took him to the hospital, where his eyes out were washed out and 4 specks of soot or grit found. Fortunately, there was unlikely to be any lasting damage, the doctor said.
Questions. How can a supervisor permit a worker to start welding without the necessary safety equipment? How can an uncertified welder weld a structure that may one day collapse on people's heads?
* * * * *
The supervisor said otherwise. Carry on working, he said.
When the workers complained, he gave Hafiz S$50 to "take care of the problem". The workers were still not happy. The injury was more serious than a pay-off could "take care" of, but what could they do? If they complained to the authorities, they might be out of a job.
* * * * *
These are stories I heard
over the weekend and they should stir our conscience. But unless somebody
has reported the specifics to the industrial safety authorities, they are
not investigated nor culprits held to account. Few would know.
But as you can see from the above, all too often supervisors themselves do not want news of their own culpability to leak out while the workers are too unempowered to do much for themselves.
Thus what we read in the press must be just the tip of the iceberg, and usually that's because it has unavoidably become a newsworthy story, as when someone has died or is injured seriously enough for the authorities to prosecute. See the sidebar.
As far as the web is concerned, for all the chatter there about "alternative news and views" and the "public conscience", it is even less well positioned to carry stories like these. Face the fact: Those of us who use the internet to communicate and propound are hardly representative of Singaporeans and our fellow residents on this island. Our chatter is skewed towards issues that interest the young and well heeled. There's a whole population out there, struggling to make a living, sometimes under dangerous conditions and uncaring bosses, who have no access to the internet. Their stories are not told.
* * * * *
Ah Kiat was a tanned, late-thirties, working-class guy. Maybe Singaporean, maybe Malaysian. One stop after he got on, he noticed by chance an ex-colleague getting onto the same bus. Ah Kiat motioned to the Bangla guy -- let's call him Sayeed -- to squeeze his way through to where he was.
"How are you?" Sayeed said in greeting.
"OK lah," Ah Kiat replied.
"Just find. One or two month ago. And you?"
"Ya," said Sayeed. "Boss send me to another project."
Over the next few minutes, I pieced together that it had been a while since they last saw each other. Ah Kiat had either resigned or been laid off, but he had since found a new job with a grocery shop.
Sayeed, quite a good-looking, short, stocky guy with a broad smile, had been transferred from one worksite to another and appeared quite happy with his situation.
"What you do now?" Sayeed enquired.
"Work in shop lah," Ah Kiat said. "Only now finish. You see, 10 o'clock then go home."
"Good money, no? Got overcome lah," Sayeed seemed a little envious.
"Where got overtime in shop? $800 only, ah."
"800 one day?" Sayeed asked, his eyes opening wide. Foreign workers' wages are usually stated on a per-day basis, so that's what he's used to.
"Your head, ah. 800 one day," Ah Kiat got quite animated.
"800 one month lah."
Sayeed was either too polite or too stunned to respond. He just smiled.
"So long can survive," Ah Kiat added, pensively. "Think so lah. See how lah."
Sayeed remained smiling. The bus was getting increasingly packed and they were standing very close together.
"I ask the boss can pay more or not," the local guy continued, "but he always say no money." Then he started getting agitated. "What no money. He take Chinese girl and pay her $200. For what? For touch here... touch there."
His vocabulary failing him, Ah Kiat instinctively demonstrated the "here" and the "there". For the "here", he made a rotary motion on Sayeed's chest around the nipples. For the "there", he reached behind his friend's buttocks with his other hand. They were just the subtlest of movements, as they were so close to each other that all it took was a flick of a wrist to touch the chest or buttocks, but I was close enough to notice.
Sayeed tried to sound sympathetic. "You tell him you work many hours lah."
"No use lah. I ask him many times already. Every week, he got new Chinese girl. Actually, by right should be my money, but he spend on girl. Touch here..." -- and he unthinkingly fondled Sayeed's chest again.
"Touch there..." -- this time, it was his upper arm.
And so the conversation went on, as Ah Kiat increasingly betrayed his unhappiness. Despite the subject veering a little to what was going on at Pasir Panjang and whether someone called Ah Boon was still with the construction firm, every minute or so, Ah Kiat would come back to the Chinese girls and their $200 fees like a bad refrain. Every minute or so, his hands would act out his employer's "touch here, touch there" on Sayeed -- shoulder, chest, abdomen, and at one point amusingly close to "down there".
And so it went on. Two men talking about money, about how hard life was, about unreasonable bosses, and amidst the aggravation, one man was repeatedly, absent-mindedly, molesting the other. Who smiled calmly through it all.
© Yawning Bread