He died alone, a young man in a Sydney hospital bed thousands of kilometres from home, a victim of exploitation, poverty and a disease belonging in the pages of a 19th century medical text — tuberculosis. When a doctor phoned the man’s family in India to say that he wouldn’t survive the day, his father dropped the phone and the connection was lost.”[It is] one of the saddest stories that I have encountered in nearly eight years as a coroner,” Deputy State Coroner Hugh Dillon said on Monday when he announced his findings into the death of Manjit Singh.
The story was, he said, “a 21st century retelling of the story of How the Poor Die” — a reference to George Orwell’s 1946 autobiographical essay relating his experience as a patient with lung disease in a French hospital.
Mr Dillon also said that the Manjit Singh may have been the victim of human trafficking.
Manjit, who was 33 when he died in Royal North Shore Hospital in August, 2011, grew up in a village near the city of Jalandhar in the north-western Indian state of Punjab. His father, Jaswinder, had a small farm on which he grew wheat, rice and maize and, when his son moved to the city to study for a food and beverage service diploma, he must have been the proudest man alive.
In Jalandhar, Manjit started an apprenticeship as a chef at the very modest International Hotel and it’s there that he met Gurjit Singh, who would go on to sponsor Manjit’s Australian 457 visa application.
A medical examination in India ahead of the visa’s approval revealed that Manjit had latent tuberculosis. As a result, he was required to sign a health undertaking that directed him to place himself under the supervision of a state health authority when he arrived in Australia.
Singh told Manjit that he had not passed the medical and would need to bring $12,000 with him; it would, he said, be returned to him if he didn’t get sick. Manjit’s father took out a loan. (The Department of Immigration and Border Protection, the DIBP, imposes no such requirement.)
Nevertheless, for a young man from a poor farming village, Singh was still promising Manjit the world: as an employee of North Indian Flavour, Singh’s restaurant in Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, he would be required to work only 38 hours a week and would live at Singh’s house. After two years, Singh told him, he would be guaranteed permanent residency.
Manjit arrived in Sydney late in summer in 2006 on a 457 visa, speaking little English and carrying $12,000 in travellers cheques. His five years in Sydney would become a struggle for survival as his health and circumstances deteriorated.
Singh’s promises turned to dust: the restaurant manager banked the money. Manjit never saw it again. According to the Coroner’s report, he was unable to give police details of the bank or the account number because it was operated by Singh.
Singh had said he would be paid $800 a week. Manjit’s 457 visa application, signed by Gurjit Singh, said the applicant would be paid $43,000 a year.
“[Manjit’s] statements to police and the objective evidence of his circumstances suggest that he was never paid the wages that were indicated to the Department of Immigration and that he had been promised,” Mr Dillon concluded.
Manjit was required to work at North Indian Flavour from 8am until midnight, seven days a week, and, when Australian Federal Police interviewed him in relation to details of his employment, he told them he had to sleep in a storeroom and was locked in overnight. (No criminal prosecution in relation to allegations of human trafficking have been initiated against Mr Singh.)
“He described having only limited food available to eat, and getting little in the way of breaks … He had no shower or bath, and was required to bathe using a jug and the tap in the public toilet.” In interviews with police, Gurjit Singh disputed Manjit’s description of his living conditions.
Complying with his health undertaking, Manjit underwent several medical reviews through 2006 and 2007. He was found to have no active symptoms of tuberculosis.
He stopped work at Singh’s restaurant in January 2008 and his visa expired the following month. He was granted a bridging visa pending the approval of his application for a further 457 visa, which meant that there were periods when he had no work rights.
By May 2009 when he sought medical assistance, he was malnourished and severely deficient in folate and Vitamin D. He was admitted to Royal North Shore hospital on May 12. He was 52kg and had severe tuberculosis, malnutrition and anaemia.
Manjit responded to the drug regime he was prescribed and, after two months in hospital he was released. But outpatient notes recorded that he had no money and was not able to feed himself or pay for housing. “His situation was so dire that the nursing staff collected money for him, cooked him food and gave him warm clothing,” the Coroner said.
And by mid 2010, Manjit had relapsed. He would spend the following months on a treadmill of treatments and tests. On August 8, 2011 surgeons at Royal North Shore hospital removed his diseased right lung. Manjit died on August 26, 2011. The Coroner found that his death was due to complications following the surgery.
But he made other comments about the case. “Even while he was living in Australia on a criminal justice visa as a suspected victim of people trafficking while the Australian Federal Police conducted their investigations, Manjit had no right to work and therefore lived hand-to-mouth, relying on charity, but suffering from malnutrition and deteriorating physically so much that he became vulnerable to reactivation of his tuberculosis.
“Unless there is scrutiny by DIBP of the bona fides of employers making 457 visa applications … it appears likely that cases like Manjit’s are and will remain the tip of the iceberg.”
The Coroner’s conclusion was grim: “The hardship of Manjit Singh’s life, and the loneliness of his death, in one of the richest countries in the world is desolating.”