By Nguyen Minh Quan
To the question “How much do you have to pay your lawyer, how much is he going to charge you?” Gowri (not his real name) replies: “Charging, no talking.” It is phrased in a way migrant workers commonly speak, to mean that fees were not discussed. He expects his lawyer to be honest and helpful.
Some workers that TWC2 has met actually expect lawyers to work for nothing, though Gowri appears to be vaguely aware that eventually he will have to pay. Still, it doesn’t sound right that lawyers should sign on clients without first making sure clients understand what they will be charged.
In point of fact, the person Gowri refers to as his ‘lawyer’ is not a lawyer, but a ‘Client Services Manager’ of one of several law firms that specialise in work injury cases. Several such firms have offices in the Little India area, making themselves accessible to foreign workers.
After an injury to his hand and not receiving his pay for the last salary period, Gowri asked a friend to recommend a lawyer. He was pointed to this law firm, which he visited and where he had a talk with the manager. According to Gowri, there was no written contract between the firm and him.
One of the first things the manager advised him to do, says Gowri, was to move out of the company’s quarters. Now Gowri is staying in the Little India area, and has to pay a monthly rental fee. This will be a severe drain on his savings.
“We don’t agree that injured workers should move out of company accommodation unless there is very pressing reason to do so,” says Alex Au, TWC2 vice-president. “The law makes it clear that employers are responsible for housing workers even when they have lost their jobs, and workers shouldn’t end up paying for their own accommodation and letting employers get a free pass over this.”
Gowri has been out of a job for two months. After a short period of medical leave, he tried going back to work at the shipyard, but found that his hand hurt too much. So he stopped work and decided that to protect his own interests, he had to seek out a lawyer who could help him file an injury compensation claim.
It is not clear what his expectations of his lawyer are, or how fast he expected issues to be resolved, but he doesn’t seem satisfied. He tells me that after three consecutive days of visiting the law firm, he came to the conclusion that they were not really helpful. “No problem. Wait wait wait” was the response Gowri got whenever he checked with the firm. Gowri grew increasingly frustrated.
However, he says he doesn’t know how to resolve this issue himself.
Obviously, he is unaware that having a lawyer is redundant. Gowri could have filed a complaint directly at MOM himself with the assistance of TWC2, but so long as he has retained a lawyer, it is difficult for other parties to intervene.
Throughout the interview, Gowri remains calm discussing his problems. Though under great stress, I can see he is a strong man. Hopefully, his issues are resolved in the near future.