Akram: Have Faith

interview by marie chung

Singapore’s creatives, expatriates and migrants gather in one abandoned art space soon to be demolished by the government. Here we all are, at The Mill on a Sunday evening supporting powerful poetry, stories and music of a social group with limited opportunity to define themselves outside of their role as migrant or transient workers.

Transient Workers Count 2 (TWC2) in Singapore has a program called the Cuff Road Food Program in Little India. TWC2 provides a range of services for Bangladeshi migrant workers who cannot work due to a work place injury or salary disputes.

Arriving at the small hawker stall on Cuff Road, I knew my own life was far removed from the experiences of these workers. I sat next to Debbie Fordyce, the project co-ordinator of the Cuff Road Program, watching worker after worker seek out advice on how to make and dispute claims, or even just survive.

Debbie introduced me to Akram Hossan, a humble young Bangladeshi man who has been out of work for over a year. Akram took me above the hawker stall to a separate space where TWC2 clients can retreat. We sat ourselves on a table overlooking the bustling streets outside and before I could begin, Akram laid out photos in front of me.

This is my family, my wife, my son, my daughter and my father. My father died already this January but I wasn’t allowed to go back to see him at his funeral. The Singaporean government will not let us leave the country whilst processing claims for a work place injury. For 5 years and 5 months, I have not been able to see them.

How do you manage the long distance with your family?

It’s in having positive mentality. TWC also supports us by giving us food and providing a safe space for me to meet friends. Other than that, I still have money problems.

I’m not really happy anymore. Before the accident, everything was good. Since the accident it has been 1 year, 8 months and 27 days that I haven’t worked. The injury happened on the 12th of May 2013, damaging and limiting movement from my elbow to my hands. I was previously working in maintenance for lifts, escalators and travelators.

What did a typical working day look like for you?

I worked 5 days a week starting from 5 am until 9 – 11 pm at night. The employer was good back then but once I had this accident, everything changed. I was earning $1200 before the accident per month, but for over time past 5 pm I earned cash in hand. After my injury, my base salary changed to $750/month but now I get money from the government because I can’t work anymore.

In Singapore, there are no workers unions to protect the rights of migrant workers. Often after receiving an injury, migrant workers are left to process their claims alone and receive minimal assistance from the government. They are also in a state of limbo whilst their claims are being processed and classified as a Special Person who cannot leave their country until further notice. This may mean 1 month, 3 months, 1 year or more.

How did you get the injury?

I was working in a lift standing on the high beam between two lifts. The building was 32 stories and my hand was caught in a lift coming down. I didn’t know the other lift was working and whilst standing on the high beam, the other lift came down and pulled my hand with it in a split second. At the time we had no safety equipment to avoid this.

It took about two hours for the rescue team to come, but then I had to sign papers before they could do anything. Because it took so long, they had to amputate my finger. If they came earlier, I’d still have five fingers. I’ve now had twelve operations. They have replaced this finger bone to another, and the skin from my legs to the ripped areas on my arm.

The employer has now handed me to the Ministry of Man Power. They have given me the Special Person status which means that I can stay here indefinitely but cannot work in Singapore.

Would you still work if you could?

How can I work? I can’t even move my hands.

Can you go back to Bangladesh to your family?

It’s too expensive to fly back home. And now I can only transfer them $300 – $400 per month.

So why did you choose to come to Singapore for work?

It’s better money than Bangladesh. I thought I could support my family. I couldn’t get a job back home. Since moving here, I can only talk to my family but can’t visit them anymore.

 

Do you feel that Singapore does enough to support migrant workers?

It’s a good country but some bosses and operations are very bad. The conditions at work aren’t good. The employers don’t support us enough. Now I have not just an injury on this arm, but my back and knees. It’s not the same anymore. I don’t know what my life will be like after this.

What could employers do better in Singapore?

Employers don’t really care here. They should give financial support and not complain about us or attack us. If there is no accident, then they are happy to have you.

“Once you have an injury, you are useless and they don’t want you anymore. Now how can I look after my own children’s lives? If I have problems, my whole family has problems”.

Now you are seeking help from TWC. What do you get from them?

I come here for food and they help me with my forms. After the injury, I’ve had bills up to $40,000 dollars but the company won’t cover all of that. I don’t get support for anything. If I wanted to apply for a job, you wouldn’t hire me because of my disability. My wife could leave me because I can’t provide her with anything.

And what keeps you trying everyday Akram?

“I only have God. How does God help us? He gives us people”.

People like TWC and the networks from there help. You are a sign of God. Between humans, we support and help each other.

It was a very short-lived interview with Akram. Phones were ringing and friends were expecting him downstairs. Whilst chatting I tried desperately to find some light or hope in our discussions. There was none. In all our interviews, we try our best to find points of resilience and strength and to remove the suffering from these experiences.

With Akram, there still remains a lot of suffering; a lot of the unknown. After reflecting for some time after my travels to Singapore, some light finally arrived in this conversation with Akram. In his financial struggles, his disconnection to family and home, Akram smiles his way throughout our interview. And in my own doubt of possibly making any impact on his life or others, he assures me that even if the pain is real and seemingly endless, we will always have people to fall back on – it is in the hands of people where change happens.