By Peter Looker
“Lawyer say you wait, you wait, you wait MC money” Atikur (not his real name) tells me, “but money no give”.
For four whole months now, Atikur, a worker from Bangladesh, has been waiting for “MC pay” accruing from the medical leave he was given for a serious and ongoing problem with his eye. Under the Work Injury Compensation Act, the employer should pay medical leave wages at two-thirds the previous gross salary.
The problem in Atikur’s eye makes him “see blur”. Turning his face so that the injured eye comes closest to me, he pulls back his eye lids and rolls his eye inward to show me how it is slightly misshapen and swollen. The completely straight and serious look on his face when he shows me his eye says, “Look, you can see for yourself what is wrong”.
I ask him how long it has been since he visited the doctor and he replied: two months. The doctor told him he had “many problem” with his eye and needed further treatment but that would cost “many, many money”. He had to get money from his boss, the doctor told him, or he could not have further treatment. “Boss no pay,” Atikur says. “Boss not take care me”.
Atikur is stuck. He has not received the medical wages owing him, and he has not worked for more than four months. He is now on a Special Pass allowing him to stay legally in Singapore, but not work. He does not want to go back to Bangladesh; he wants his eye treated. For that, however, he needs a letter of guarantee from his boss that the company will pay for medical treatment. But as Atikur says, “Boss guarantee letter never give”.
He has sought help from a legal assistant named Ranjit, working for Joseph Chen and Co (Advocates and Solicitors). I want to know from Atikur why he decided to engage a lawyer; whether this firm had been recommended by anyone, or whether any friends had suggested it. Atikur seems unable to articulate an answer. All he says is “this man help me I go”, obviously believing that if he had a lawyer, he would get support. The main reason he has to offer is because Ranjit speaks “Indian Bangla”. Atikur struggles to speak English (and understand it) and this limits the information and choices open to him when he faces a difficulty.
Alex Au, vice-president of TWC2 explains that most injured workers from India and Bangladesh sign up with legal assistants from a handful of law firms that “specialise” in migrant worker injury cases. Workers from these two countries come with the cultural idea that lawyers are “big men” who have social influence and can solve problems for them. “Also crucial is the fact that the legal assistants who canvas for business for these law firms speak the language of the workers, or have connections with their home villages,” Alex adds. “Workers facing serious problems such as injuries and desperate for any kind of help, see linguistic familiarity and social networks that link back to home as good reasons to place trust in these legal assistants and the law firms they work for.”
For many workers however, disillusionment sets in quite quickly.
Despite seeking support from the “lawyer” — though it is likely that Atikur is referring to the legal assistant by this term — Atikur insists that the lawyer “everything no talk me” meaning he suspects something is happening but he is himself not getting any information or satisfaction from the legal assistant or the firm. He believes that the lawyer “a paper give to MOM”, but he cannot find out what the paper is saying. On several occasions through our conversation, he comes back to the point that the lawyer has not told him anything. He believes that one of the reasons he is stuck is because there is no action and he does not know what is happening.
A week earlier, he went to MOM to complain about his case, but the ministry officer “ask me any problem date and time”. I get the impression he did not know how to answer the officer’s questions, or did not see them as relevant to what he needed.
“We see many cases like this,” says Alex, “where the worker is left alone trying to get progress on his case when he feels he’s not getting any help from the law firm he has engaged.” TWC2 would like to help, but unless the worker has discharged his lawyer, it is very difficult for the organisation to step in. “A worker shouldn’t have two organisations representing him.”
Yet workers, in TWC2’s experience, are very reluctant to discharge their lawyers. “We’re back to this cultural need for a ‘protector’,” says Alex. “Psychologically, they find it very hard to cut this umbilical cord even when they are dissatisfied” with the legal assistants they have engaged.
Atikur says the lawyer has asked him to wait for the MC money, but in the meantime the plain facts are that Atikur has no money, is living off the charity of some of his brothers (who sometimes give him food) as well as TWC2, and cannot see a way forward. He does not know where to turn next and he has few resources.
I wonder why he is not getting anywhere with the lawyer who is supposed to be helping him get his MC pay. I wonder why he being left without the means to get further medical treatment. Perhaps next time he goes to MOM to get his Special Pass stamped, he will be able to tell them where things stand and find out more.