By Davina Tham

When injured workers come to Transient Workers Count Too, the sorry tales they bring are usually about trying to get proper medical treatment and difficulty in getting reluctant employers to foot the bills as they should by law. Rarely is there someone like Lakshmanan Sasikumar, whose employer seems to have checked all the right boxes for responding to a work accident. Yet, Sasikumar is bringing a civil suit against his employer.

Why? This writer is curious to know. Why not rely on the Ministry of Manpower’s Work Injury Compensation (WICA) process?

“He can’t walk, it’s so bad,” says TWC2 volunteer Christine, who translates for this writer. Moving gingerly, the worker sits down rather stiffly and starts to tell his story.

The short answer is that Sasikumar, who already has salt and pepper hair, has heard from other workers of the long waits before WICA claims are resolved. In the meantime, he will be without work, and possibly without income, like so many others. He’d rather be back home in India getting treatment and support from his family, an option that WICA does not allow.

In May 2013, Sasikumar, 31, fell from a height of 6.5 metres while doing heavy lifting along with three other workers. His company called an ambulance immediately and the four were taken to National University Hospital. After receiving ankle implants, he was put on five months of medical leave. He spent three months recovering at Sunnyville Nursing Home before moving back to the company dormitory.

Given the commendable performance of the employer and the treatment Sasikumar has received so far, this writer is surprised to hear what happened next: Sasikumar moved out of the dormitory after twelve days and hired a lawyer.

Launching a civil suit is a decision with far-reaching consequences. It involves the worker waiving his right to receive compensation under WICA. He also incurs legal fees that can set him back considerably. The majority of injured workers hence choose compensation offered under WICA — a process that does not require a lawyer — rather than take on the risk and hassle of a lawsuit.

What could have motivated Sasikuma to take that unexpected route?

Things came to a head for Sasikuma when, with one month of medical leave to go but his pain still persisting, doctors nonetheless told him that he had only one last appointment left. Then they delivered the devastating news.

“He’s been told he can’t work anymore,” says Christine.

Sasikumar, who hails from Tamil Nadu, has to support his parents and two sisters. The prospect of never being able to work in construction again is distressing to say the least.

He is afraid that his employer will have him repatriated to India at short notice and without any compensation. It is a concern that many workers share, especially when stories about repatriation agents using rough tactics continue to circulate.

But “his company (employer) doesn’t operate like that, based on what friends say,” Christine explains, pointing to the fact that in Sasikumar’s case, the company has covered medical expenses and medical leave wages. Many other injured workers would be envious of him.

At this point Sasikumar gestures to a slightly older Indian man who has been standing next to him all this while, at times gently stepping in to help translate. “His friend has been waiting for his WICA claim to be settled for one year and two months,” explains Christine. “He doesn’t seem to be getting his claim.” He has also been stuck in Singapore for all this time, unable to work and making no income.

This friend’s experience has served as a cautionary tale for Sasikumar. He is afraid of a similarly long-drawn-out WICA case that may result in long-term unemployment and also keep him from returning to India, where he wants to continue getting treatment for his injuries. He needs to act fast to improve his chances of healing and working again.

“I go my home, I treatment take,” he says, “I pray probably will heal.”

By the end of the conversation with Sasikumar, his civil suit, which had at first seemed to this writer like a bewildering decision, now made sense. It was the best course of action that he could see from his position, with pressure from time, money, and health weighing in on all sides.

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WICA process, good in theory, inadequately implemented

Says Kenneth Soh, TWC2 social worker, “The WICA process is actually a good one, especially as it is a no-fault process.” This is unlike a civil suit where the plaintiff has to prove that the employer was at fault.

As for why so many injured workers (including Sasikumar’s friends) think poorly of WICA, “the problems arise when employers do not fulfill their obligations,” adds Kenneth. Typically, workers complain that medical leave allowances are not paid, and that employers refuse to guarantee payment for their necessary treatment.

But why are these complaints so common? Explains Kenneth: “My opinion is that the ministry is reluctant to engage with employers when these hiccups arise,” with the result that workers are left high and dry. The provisions of the law may be good, but without enforcement, they can’t be effective.

One drawback with the present law is that the obligation to pay medical leave allowances (often called “MC pay” by workers) cease twelve months after an injury. However, some workers have injuries that take more than 12 months to heal; how is the poor worker to survive without any income after that?

The law should be changed, says Kenneth. “MC money should continue to be paid to the worker even after twelve months,” he explains. “A continuing obligation will also be an incentive to employers to be prompt in issuing letters of guarantee so that workers get treatment without delay. The more employers delay, the more MC money they will have to pay,” if the law is changed.