By Keith Wong

“Twenty months,” says Kabil Monul (not his real name). That’s how long it has been since an industrial accident caused a dislocation of his left shoulder. Only today (in August 2014) has he received an offer from the Ministry of Manpower for compensation for permanent incapacity: a mere two “points”, which translates to only about $1,600.

“But many [kinds of]  work, I don’t think I can do,” Kabil adds. The compensation is supposed to make up for loss of future income — for the rest of his life. It is hard to see how $1,600 is adequate when his left arm is now “no power”.

The shipyard worker was injured in November 2012. “His arm hanging down,” says his friend Shahin while gesturing to indicate how Kabil’s left arm came off the shoulder socket by about five centimetres. Kabil himself was in such pain, “I don’t remember which hospital my company sent me to,” he says in above-average English for a Bangladeshi worker.

About “two or three months” after the accident, when his recovery seemed slower than expected, the doctor told him an MRI scan was needed so that a determination could be made as to where precisely the soft tissue damage was. It would be another six months before this was carried out. “Company don’t want to give guarantee letter,” is how Kabil explains the delay. Without a guarantee of payment, the hospital would not carry out the procedure. It was only resolved after the authorities intervened, he said.

When the MRI results came in, the doctor discussed with him the pros and cons of surgery. That surgery was even indicated suggested that the shoulder might not heal fully by itself. However, the risks were high that the arm might still be no better with surgery, and so Kabil eventually decided against it. Instead, he was put on intensive physiotherapy, with three or four sessions a month. 

“So how is the shoulder and arm now?” I ask.

“Normal time, sit down like here now, no problem,” he says, showing me how he can lift and rotate the arm. The shoulder has regained nearly all its flexibility.  “But when I carry something more than three kilo, pain will come.” It seems as if even this small load stretches his ligaments, causing pain. Maybe there’s also nerve damage.

“Also, I cannot sleep on my left side. If my body press on my left side, also have pain.”

He complains of weakness in the arm, though it may be the indirect result of pain appearing all too readily.

Understandably, his big worry is what work he can perform in the years ahead. He is only 28 years old. “How about taking a course to become a safety supervisor or lifting supervisor?” I suggest, half-pretending to know more about such vocations than I actually do. “Supervisor jobs don’t need much muscle work, do they?”

“Not true,” he gently corrects me. “Lifting supervisor must show workers and riggermen how to do the shackle. Shackle can be quite big one.”And he adds that sometimes the supervisor needs to show his men how to push and manoeuvre loads to get them into the right position for lifting. “All this, arm must have power. No [strength], how to do?”

Money worries are at the top of his mind now. He’s been without income for twenty months. Luckily he has an uncle working in Singapore who has been able to help him out; he has also been getting regular meals and transit cards from TWC2. He says he feels obligated to pay his uncle back, but he can’t even imagine what work he can do to support himself.

From MOM's handbook for assessment of traumatic injuries and occupational diseases for work injury compensation

From MOM’s handbook for assessment of traumatic injuries and occupational diseases for work injury compensation

Why is the offered compensation such a small amount? There is an e-handbook at the MOM website (see http://www.mom.gov.sg/Documents/safety-health/GATIOD-Fifth-Edition.pdf) which provides guidelines for medical practitioners in assessing permanent incapacity, but it is very technical. What it does seem to indicate to a layman is that the assessment is heavily focussed on loss of movement. Weakness is not taken into account. As for pain, the introduction says:

In general, pain is subjective and cannot be measured objectively. Much of the pain associated with a traumatic injury is also temporary in nature. However there can be severe and persistent pain associated with certain injuries and conditions eg nerve injuries, osteo-athritis and spinal injuries which can result in permanent loss of function and restriction of daily activities or job functions…

It then goes on to say that it is “not necessary to give additional awards” for pain. In other words, it should be ignored. This is hard to understand. Pain can be very debilitating. The quick appearance of pain each time Kabil uses his left arm to lift more than three kilos essentially renders the arm useless for any significant work.

Now he has to think long and hard whether to contest the “two percent” compensation offer or accept the measly sum. Or whether to sue the employer under common law.

As we end our interview, he has one request. “Please, not use my name. My family in Bangladesh not fully know what happened.” Evidently, he has one more problem:  how to break the bad news to his family.