By Trinity Chua
Juna and I sat awkwardly under a single fan in a room full of mismatched furniture. A social worker introduced us and then left us alone. A Tamil translation of Sherlock Holmes stood on the shelves above us. Asked if he read the book, he shrugged his shoulders, not knowing who Sherlock Holmes is.
Juna is currently jobless, having hurt his fingers while working with heavy equipment at a construction site. He was not allowed to work until his case was heard and settled. Two years since that incident, I found him still waiting for his case to be heard and compensation to be paid out. He spends his days in Little India, biding time and lackadaisically playing with his phone.
He recounted his working days to me. Born and bred in a middle class family in Bangladesh, he never once washed his plates at home. He said food was never scarce as many middle class families own farmlands.
Cash was the problem.
He came to Singapore, like many other foreign workers, to earn enough money to eke out a better life in his own country.
“If you get a good company, then everything will be all right. Sometimes, if people come here, work is not good, the salary also not good, always his mind is bad- what they do, thinking about family because they spent a lot of money.”
Using words such as “The(ir) mind is no good” or “they crazy”, Juna described how his peers felt when faced with their everyday problems in Singapore, whether deserved or otherwise.
“You know, for one worker, sometimes it is many things happening at their work, salary is very low they cannot afford the medical bills and some of their supervisors or bosses are very bad always talking bad. So sometimes, they crazy and they cannot say anything and people are crazy and do like this [he was implying it could be a possible cause to the Little India Riot].”
He told me a story of his own, too.
He had a supervisor who slapped his helmet and scolded him on many occasions, whether he did well at work or not.
“I feel like nothing and I called my boss and he said the supervisor is also your boss, you must follow what he said. If he is not happy, I also not happy and I will send you back. I got no choice.”
“At that time, if this was Bangladesh I thinking I will kill this guy. If he do for me like this in Bangladesh, I kill this guy cause my mind always crazy and very bad feelings that time I was working.”
He added quickly he understood Singapore was different. To him, “rules are everything” here and he believed he had spent too much money to come here to allow himself to make a blunder in Singapore.
Like many others, Juna is resigned to a position of silence in Singapore. He said many of their families back home still could not accept the fact that their children are working in construction sites as manual labourers in Singapore. Like Singaporeans, they feel it is beneath them.
“When I was working I take the MRT or bus, in my construction gears I am a bit dirty. Then some people they don’t like. Over here, they think I am the dirty man. My family actually don’t accept what I am doing here (because) it feels like the third class citizen work.”
While Juna had voiced some the hardships that foreign workers might faced, fellow construction worker and Indian national Ganesh was adamant that causing any form of dissent in Singapore would only make matter worse for all foreign workers.
He believed alcohol was the problem.
“I thinking this riot is wrong. Our people made a very big mistake. This one drinking, so many, many problems. They only drink, they never think, they see then they fight.
They drink then they don’t use their mind, they didn’t thinking about their family and their job,” Ganesh said.
For Ganesh, his mother, father and brother are waiting for him in India. They were dependent on his income in Singapore. He had not been able to send anything home after a recent work injury.
Ganesh, like Juna, admitted that compensations for work injuries never came easy. He had to engage a lawyer before his boss was willing to pay for his medical bills. He said not everyone was that lucky.
“First the boss say you go back I give you ticket only. After I go to my lawyer, then my boss paid for my hospital bill. Some bosses pay, some bosses do not. Some people, the family send money from India then some just take passport and go back to India.”
When asked if medical bills were a reason that led to the sentiments behind the riot, Juna shrugged his shoulders and said, “Insurance is very difficult. If boss accept the case then you get insurance. If boss does not accept the case then you won’t get the insurance. The boss can choose not to give… some of these bosses are very clever and then workers cannot do anything because bosses know everything in Singapore.”
*Names changed as requested by sources.