By Benjamin Wong
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) website states that for a worker to claim under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA), “the employee only needs to prove that he was injured in a work accident …” (emphasis added by TWC2). In reality, many workers have difficulty even meeting this supposedly simple condition, because the employer is in control of the evidence. If an employer does not want to acknowledge that an accident occurred, the worker will struggle to produce the needed proof.
Alam Late Keramat Ali is one worker who feels victimised by the system.
In July 2013, Alam was working for a marine repair company when he got into an accident. He was carrying a heavy plate with a fellow worker, when the fellow worker slipped and lost his grip on the plate. By instinct, Alam held on desperately to the plate, to prevent it from falling to a lower level of the tank, where others were working. Alam heard a cracking sound in his back, and then felt a rush of pain.
Immediately, Alam told his supervisor of the accident and was sent to the company’s designated medical centre, West Point. The driver accompanied Alam to the emergency room, where, Alam tells me, the doctor conversed with the driver and that he had no clue what was said on his behalf. The doctor hardly spoke to him, Alam says. “Driver speak to doctor, I dunno what happen.”
After an X-Ray, the doctor at West Point medical gave Alam three days’ medical leave. Alam claims that he never even saw his original medical certificate (“MC”), as his employer took it and did not give him a copy. But worse, and to Alam’s dismay, his boss soon cancelled his work permit. Alam then went to a lawyer, and decided to see a doctor at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, where he has since been treated for what he calls his “backbone injury”. He has been paying for all his visits to Tan Tock Seng out of his own pocket.
Despite continuing pain, and unable to work, he thought that his injury claim would go smoothly. After all, he had visited MOM in October 2013 to explain his situation. Moreover, Ruman, a Bangladeshi co-worker who, Alam says, had witnessed the accident, also went down to MOM. He was also aware that MOM contacted West Point Hospital too.
“Everyone go one time [to MOM],” Alam tells me. He was sure that MOM had an accurate picture of what happened that day.
Then, in early January 2014, Alam discovered that his claim for Work Injury Compensation had been denied. Alam is frustrated, “How can like this? How can object? Never anything settle. Salary also haven’t settle.”
“I calling MOM officer many time he never pick up. He no pick up. I talk to voice message he never call back.” Alam claims, before proceeding to call the number given to him to let me hear the voice message.
Angry and feeling helpless, Alam turned to TWC2 for help. “Debbie call, also no pick up,” he tells me, referring to Debbie Fordyce, TWC2 executive committee member. “Then she help write letter,” informing MOM that Alam has more evidence that the accident was work-related.
(As of 31 January 2014, nearly a month after my interview with Alam, which took place early January, Debbie has not received any reply from MOM.)
If Alam was injured during work, why was his claim rejected? Where could it have gone wrong? Looking back at the story, problems could have begun right from the start. The medical record at West Point may have already been contrary to Alam’s account, since the record of the incident was provided by the driver. Alam was not privy to the conversation; he did not know what exactly the driver said. So what did MOM later hear from West Point?
In a recent study (see Who said what to the doctor?), TWC2 found that many doctors fail to speak directly with patients to obtain clear and accurate histories of injuries.
And what about the witness Ruman? Ruman did visit the Ministry of Manpower once, but it emerged that he went together with the boss. One may wonder what Ruman might have said, or not said, in the presence of his boss.
Through our interview, Alam exasperatedly exclaims more than once, “How can [boss] object [that] I injured at work?” Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is so loaded against workers that employers can well get their way.