Heartbreak and grief: 1,000 attended funeral of worker who died in Tanjong Pagar worksite collapse
As the noise from media coverage and funeral preparations faded, Mr Raja Manickam found himself on an Air India Express flight from Singapore to India on June 17 with the body of his grand-nephew, Mr Vinoth Kumar.
The latter had died two days earlier when a wall collapsed during demolition works at the Fuji Xerox Towers building in Tanjong Pagar.
Mr Vinoth, 20, was the sole casualty in the accident.
Upon touching down in Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu state, Mr Raja, 44, escorted his grand-nephew’s body in an ambulance to Mr Vinoth’s village in Veeranamalai, six hours away.
The Straits Times has stayed in touch with Mr Raja, who is currently at home in Tirupattur, Tamil Nadu.
Speaking to ST by phone, Mr Raja said he could not bring himself to break the news to Mr Vinoth’s parents.
“After the accident, I told only my family about what happened and that I’m coming home. I didn’t know how to tell his parents that I’m coming back with their son’s body.”
He arrived in Veeranamalai at dawn last Sunday.
Mr Vinoth’s parents suspected something was wrong as crowds began to gather outside their house. Then they saw their son’s body.
“I cannot even explain how much they cried. They cried until they couldn’t even breathe,” Mr Raja said quietly.
He told ST that the funeral was attended by nearly 1,000 people, including family members, villagers and those from surrounding villages.
“The whole village was wailing and falling at my feet, asking why I brought him back as a corpse,” he said.
Mr Raja was too distraught to sleep till four days after the funeral. He also had no appetite, managing to drink only a glass of milk at the time.
“The past few days have been difficult for me. I don’t think I can forget what happened for the rest of my life,” he said.
ItsRainingRaincoats, a charity here for the benefit of migrant workers, said that around 85 people have contacted it offering help to Mr Vinoth’s family since news of the tragedy broke.
“We helped connect these donors to Mr Raja directly, so they can transfer money to his bank account,” said the organisation’s founder Dipa Swaminathan.
She told ST that the charity has since stopped directing people to Mr Raja, after estimating that the family has received enough funds to tide them over until the insurance payout.
Under Singapore’s Work Injury Compensation Act, the compensation for death caused by work injuries is between $76,000 and $225,000.
“I’m proud of Singapore and the community for coming forward to help. This proves that we are a compassionate society. We can be moved by the plight of a stranger to take action,” Ms Dipa said.
Mr Raja said Mr Vinoth’s mother has not left her house since the funeral and has barely eaten. Relatives have resorted to feeding her spoonfuls of glucose to give her the strength to stand.
“We cannot even afford to grieve. We are too poor to continue crying. Poor people cannot grieve for too long. Money is still a concern,” he said.
Mr Raja has three children aged between seven and 15. He will now also care for Mr Vinoth’s parents and younger brother.
“After he died, I made a promise that I would take care of his parents and younger brother. I will take care of them like I take care of my family,” he said.
Despite his own family’s concerns over the dangers of his work, Mr Raja will return to Singapore to continue working after the rites have been completed.
“I cannot be scared to lose my life. I need the money for my family,” he said.
Another workplace death had occurred on June 12, when a worker was electrocuted while installing solar panels on the rooftop of a building.
In 2022, there were 46 workplace deaths – the highest number recorded since 2016, when 66 people died. The spate of work-related deaths and injuries led the Ministry of Manpower to impose a six-month heightened safety period from Sept 1, 2022, to Feb 28, 2023. This was extended to May 31 to curb a worrying rise in workplace deaths.
Under the Workplace Safety and Health Act, first-time corporate offenders can be fined up to $500,000, while individuals can be fined up to $200,000, jailed for up to two years, or both.