By Pan Chuen
His livelihood depended on him being physically fit and able to shoulder heavy materials, but a worksite injury dashed those hopes. The only break in the dark clouds above him is a compensation pay-out from his employer. But what if the lawyer doesn’t act promptly?
Like many other Bangladeshi workers in Singapore, Nurul Islam came to Singapore to find honest work so that he could alleviate the poverty back at home. For most of them, they manage to eke out a better living even after paying hefty agency fees to get here.
That is if they manage to stay healthy.
Nurul Islam was hard at work on 1 November 2013 carrying a pulley chain that was about two or two-and-a-half metres long. He fell and hurt his back and leg. If he had been in any other company, he would have gone straight to his supervisor to report the injury. However, his company had encountered a spate of injuries, and to keep the official tally of injuries low, employees knew the company didn’t want to hear of more. Still, he reported his injury to the timekeeper but no further action was taken.
It was only six days later on 7 November that Nurul Islam, still hurting, finally decided that it was enough and he went to see a doctor. The doctor prescribed him a medical certificate declaring him unfit for duty but he got a shock when he presented his certificate to his timekeeper. Instead of treating him fairly, his timekeeper prioritised the company’s bottom line and told him, “you give a lot of problem, we going to send you home.”
Nurul Islam felt utterly betrayed. In previous incidents, he had suffered up to 7 cuts on his hands while working. He had not reported those injuries and felt that he continued to give his best to the company. Now, when his livelihood was threatened and he truly needed their help, his employer was about to leave him in the lurch.
On 15 November Nurul Islam approached a lawyer that his friend had recommended. The lawyer assured him that he would get compensation, but when I ask him what he will be paying the lawyer, he draws a blank before saying, “No, lawyer no take money.” A senior volunteer then steps in and explains that the lawyer is not going to advocate his case for free. Furthermore, whatever money disbursed as part of the compensation will go to his lawyer first. In other words, Nurul Islam has placed himself at the mercy of his lawyer.
I try to find out more about the case, and Nurul Islam informs me that no official injury claim had been lodged at the Ministry of Manpower as of 14 April 2014, almost five months after he approached his lawyer (see footnote). He also mentions that his employer had not cancelled his work permit. This would be consistent with his suspicion that the employer may prefer to delay or avoid reporting the accident (which he is required to by law). If the lawyer had filed the injury compensation claim in a timely way, things might have moved faster for him.
It occurs to me that this delay may be due to lawyers having to deal with hundreds of cases, leaving some to fall through the cracks.
Five months of anxious waiting could have been drastically shorter for Nurul Islam. Neglecting the need for his own medical expenses, the first thing that comes to the mind of the sole breadwinner is his family. He has not sent money home for many months and they are just scrapping by to survive. Feeling betrayed by first his employer, then his lawyer, he says, “Ali Baba here, Ali Baba there, Ali Baba everywhere,” using the term “Ali Baba” to refer to people whom he cannot bring himself to rely on.
TWC2 cannot do much to help, since he still has a lawyer acting for him. But if he finds himself unable to rely on his lawyer, yet keeps one, he’s on his own. Alone in a foreign country
A quick check (on 30 April 2014) indicates that Nurul Islam’s work injury claim has been lodged, but its reference number suggests it was only lodged in the middle or second half of April 2014.