By Jennifer Parenteau
As an employer, you are responsible for medical leave wages and medical expenses of your worker injured at work, even if they have been dismissed.
When you read this quote from a Work Safety & Health (WSH) bulletin, published in April 2013 by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), you might breath a sigh of relief thinking that you are protected while you work here in Singapore, even if you have had a bad accident at work.
Unfortunately, Yeusof (not his real name) found this not to be true at all. His story tells of a long and determined fight in order to get his medical leave wages from his company, Hyundai Engineering and Construction, and as we write this, his journey is not yet over after a long 14-month anguish.
Yeusof, 30, was injured at work on 9 July 2013 as he was supervising the pouring of cement into formwork 170m down the Jurong Rock Cavern. It was the third day of the pour and all had gone well until this final day when the cement was over-pumped into the formwork. An explosion resulted, spraying 700 cubic meters of cement over twenty men who began running for their lives. Yeusof fell in the panic, grazing his face and arms, half smothered in wet cement. As he lay helplessly there, men ran over the top of him, injuring his back as well. He remembered his first impressions of this deep cave he was lowered into: “When I first went down, I wanted to leave — it was so deep.”
Fortunately, help came and Yeusof was taken to Raffles Hospital, where his injured arms and face were treated. However, his doctor sent him home without medical leave, only a three-day ‘light duties’ certificate. He was told that if there was any other problem, to come back. In those three days, the pain in his lower back intensified. The third day, it was so severe he again went to Raffles Hospital. An MRI showed a bad injury in either the sacrum or the right hip (judging from where Yeusof indicated with his hands) requiring surgical intervention. Yeusof was given 14 days’ medical leave this time, but was not warded. He was sent home to recover. Still, the pain persisted and his 14 days’ MC was extended by 22 days.
Yeusof tried to go back to work, but didn’t feel able to resume fully. At some point, he spoke with a company officer about further treatment, but was told that he should go back to Bangladesh for surgery because it was cheaper there. They company would pay, he was assured. On asking for the money for this, Yeusof was then told that he should pay first, and then on his return, they would give him the money! Yeusof did not find this credible. “How to believe?”
He decided it was time to change hospitals and doctors for another opinion.
Total nearly three months of medical leave
Tan Tock Seng Hospital gave Yeusof a second medical procedure to ease the pain — this time, it seemed to work better — and two months’ medical leave to recover fully.
But now, the problem was that of medical leave wages, also known as ‘MC money’. The above-mentioned WSH bulletin also stipulates that medical leave wages should be paid “No later than the usual pay day”. Having retained a lawyer, S K Kumar, to help him with his work injury compensation claim, Yeusof asked for assistance in getting his medical wages paid too.
“But lawyer say, ‘Money will come later, later’,” recalls Yeusof, unhappy with such a position. He then discharged his lawyer, and on TWC2’s advice, visited MOM himself to pursue his own case. He told his case officer at the ministry that he had not received his MC money after a long wait of many months. According to his account, MOM called the company representative to a meeting (Yeusof was also present). When asked by MOM why the company had not yet paid this money, “the [company man] say MC money last last give!” according to Yeusof, meaning that they will only pay up just before he goes home.
“MOM officer angry,” recalls Yeusof. “He say NO”, and insisted that the company should pay Yeusof his MC wages at once.
You would think that now Yeusof’s problems would all be solved. But sadly, not so! It’s been almost a month since that meeting and Yeusof, despite telephoning his company several times to enquire about payment, has yet to see a cent.
It isn’t only him in financial distress. He has a wife and parents to support. Fortunately his brothers are helping out: one is in Saudi Arabia and another is an agricultural worker in Italy. When times were better and Yeusof was earning a steady income, he “arranged” for them to work in these places, probably meaning that he paid their agents’ fees.
After this article was written, TWC2 subsequently found out that the employer was probably disputing whether Yeusof’s injury was even work-related. MOM suspends all benefits mandated by the Work Injury Compensation Act as long as it remains undetermined whether an injury is work-related. This means that company-paid medical treatment too, in addition to MC wages, can be suspended. A lengthy suspension causes immense suffering especially when a worker is in dire need of medical treatment and has no money to pay first.
Suspensions are lifted as soon as MOM has determined that an injury was work-related. In practice, however, as Yeusof’s case shows, this determination can be left hanging in the air more than a year after the accident (Yeusof’s accident was in July 2013, he lodged his WICA claim in September 2013, and the interviewed was conducted in September 2014). There are two common scenarios:
1. MOM is just slow in its investigations;
2. The employer does not assert that an injury is not work-related until many months after the accident; despite this delay, MOM does not draw any adverse inference against the company’s claim, but shifts the burden of proof to the worker. By this time however, all evidence might have been erased from the worksite, and all other witnesses, e.g. other workers, might have been terminated and repatriated by the company.