By Chow Zhi Ying
Since the accident on 14 May 2012, injuring his right eye, Morshed Alam Saiful (above right) has been without income. He has been on medical leave but has not received any medical leave wages (‘MC pay’) from his employer. By law, as long as he is on MC, he should be entitled to MC pay regularly, and the formula provided in legislation says it should be two-thirds the gross amount he used to earn before the accident.
Without company-supplied housing, Morshed is paying $180 a month for a bed, squeezed in with nine other workers in a room. He has had to depend on TWC2 for food, and financial help from his brother for rent and other necessities. “I have a brother in Singapore, construction worker. Borrow from him. But [if] he don’t have, I die”.
He adds, “Sometimes my brother’s boss don’t give him salary, I also problem”.
Failure to pay medical leave wages is a very common story among injured workers who come to Transient Workers Count Too. In just a short span of two hours, I interviewed three such cases.
Abdus Samad has waited even longer than Morshed for his MC wages. According to his own calculation, he is owed seven and a half months’ worth of medical leave wages since his accident on 28 February 2012. “Last month [my lawyer] write letter give boss, he says he will pay me before Chinese New Year,” Abdus Samad (above left) tells me.
The employer lived up to the promise — of a sort. He gave Abdus Samad a crossed cheque for about $3,700 in the week before the holidays. But the worker does not have a bank account — he’s never earned enough to justify having one — and can’t bank in the cheque. He’s had to go back to his case officer at the Ministry of Manpower for help.
Abdus Samad suffered two injuries when he fell down a flight of stairs: one on his back and the other on his right hand. “Doctor say cannot carry heavy things,” he says; then, pointing to his right index finger, adds, “Cut already, no joint.”
The treatment phase is completed and he has undergone assessment of permanent incapacity; he is now waiting to learn how much compensation he will be offered.
It’s been one year. All this while he has been on a Special Pass making it illegal for him to work. And so, in a strange twist of fate, rather than Abdus sending money back to Bangladesh to support his family they are sending money over to support him.
“My wife cry, you know? I tell my family, my hand got problem, how give you money?”
It is a saddening fact that his family in Bangladesh had to sell the land they farm to raise money for him.
Back home, Abdus has two young children relying on his income, a two-year-old and a four-year-old.
Like Morshed, Gani Din Islam too suffered an eye injury. On 23 September 2012, he was dismantling the site office. While trying to tear down a PVC pipe, a PVC fragment broke and flew into his right eye. Pointing to it, he says, “this side see very dark, very blur”.
And like Morshed and Abdus Samad, Gani (above, centre) has not received his MC pay either.
The relevant law is the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA). The Ministry of Manpower reminds employers of their obligations in a recently-published booklet. Point 4 below states clearly that “Employers are required to make payment no later than the worker’s usual pay day.”
However, as these three cases demonstrate, many injured workers are simply not paid.
Lawyers and employers sometimes makes things more difficult
Workers who are deprived of medical leave pay are sometimes driven into desperation to find jobs illegally. It is the only way they can survive. Then they get caught, and there are consequences.
Ashraful Islam is one such example. He was caught working while he was on a Special Pass. He said he had no choice because his employer did not pay MC wages. Penalising him for violating a condition of the Special Pass, MOM insisted on sending him back to Bangladesh without him collecting his compensation, MC wages and other reimbursements. You can see more of his story here: MOM tough on workers, lets employers run rings around laws.
Others, too injured to find any work, even if illegal, keep reminding their bosses about MC pay but don’t often get the outcome they want. Morshed for example says, “I talk to boss, he say talk to lawyer for MC pay.” He then went to his lawyer, but “Lawyer tell me, ‘now you still MC, when go back, I [pay] finish all.'”
The lawyer was trying to assure him that the owed MC pay would be added to the total sum claimed from the employer (including permanent injury compensation) to be paid at final settlement.
But this is not the intention of the law. The Act says MC pay should be paid on the usual pay days, and for a good reason — so that the worker has something to live on.
So many workers have reported the same experience that senior TWC2 volunteers are concerned that some lawyers aren’t doing their best for their clients. Says Debbie Fordyce, TWC2 executive committee member: “I also hear that the lawyers tell the clients not to raise this issue, and that it will be sorted out in the end. This is possibly because the legal assistant can more easily justify taking a percentage of the MC wages if it’s given in one single amount together with the compensation at the end of the process.”
Explains Alex Au, TWC2 treasurer: “Some lawyers take injury cases on a commission basis. That is, they do not charge the client anything for work done on an ongoing basis, but take a percentage (typically ten percent) of the compensation when it is paid out at the end. This actually violates the professional rules of the Law Society but it is a common practice. By not exerting themselves to help obtain timely MC wages, paid out monthly to their clients, but instead to suggest to their clients that accumulated MC wages could be folded into the final compensation amount, the law firm’s ten-percent commission will be a larger amount.”
“If this strikes you as a conflict of interest between lawyer and client, you’re not alone,” he adds.
There are times when employers complicate matters further. Gani says he was asked to sign an insurance claim form acknowledging that his injury was not work-related. Such a statement would be contrary to what happened, he says. Although Gani claims that other workers have seen the accident happen, it is hard for him to convince them to step out as witnesses as they are afraid of getting into trouble.
“I don’t want to sign, boss kick me out.” He has since left his company dormitory and rents a room in Taman Jurong at $300 a month while waiting for his injury assessment to be completed.
“I don’t want stay here very long. Every time I borrow. Lose money”.
It seems that in Singapore many people think it’s okay to ignore the law. After all, everyone else is doing it.