TWC2 volunteer Meera Rajah assisted a worker as he struggled to sort out his injury case after having things messed up by a law firm. This is Meera’s detailed account of how the mess came about and what she had to do to help him. It shines a spotlight into an area not often discussed: the quality of assistance provided by some law firms which attract migrant workers as clients.
By Meera Rajah
“Until a month ago, I cannot sit without pain”, Rashed remarks, as he settles into a chair, his voice a monotone – giving me a strange sense that he has grown accustomed to his fate. His injury occurred a year ago, on 2 October 2013.
Rashed worked under a subcontractor for Keppel Shipyard, painting ships. He was ‘power-tooling’ a ventilation pipe that day, holding onto the pipe for support. He had to contort himself to use the power-tool effectively. The ventilation pipe was above the stage in such a way that he “can’t stand… can’t sit… can’t lie properly”.
The ‘power-tool’ was on “full power” when he moved his hand to maintain his balance. Its blade sliced into his left palm, deep enough to spill blood and engrave two very proncounced permanent scars across it. It was all sudden. “I fell down the stairs”, Rashed diverts his gaze as he is sucked back into the painful memory.
No one heard him shouting over the noise of the shipyard’s operations. He lay on the floor, in agony, for what he estimates were a good “five to ten minutes”. Finally, he picked himself up and went to the foreman. He was driven to Keppel ‘s medical centre, then re-directed to West Point Hospital.
Medical treatment truncated when boss does not pay
Rashed faced an issue prevalent in the migrant worker community, one that an estimated 1-in-3 workers encounters: he was not given the chance to recount directly to the doctor what happened to him (see this article for more information on this). The doctor stitched up his hand – about “nine to ten stitches”. And then sent him out. When a doctor does not take the history directly from his patient but only hears the employer’s account of events, this can prove problematic. How is the doctor to respond to potential questions by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) about the cause of injury? After all, Rashed’s boss had not witnessed the fall himself.
More difficulties would come. At the third medical appointment, the doctor helped clean his hand but informed Rashed that he “could no longer give any medicine because boss hadn’t paid”. He told Rashed to call his boss. The boss never picked up either of Rashed’s calls. Rashed went back to his dormitory room, the ‘back pain’ that had slowly set in – back injuries tend to develop over a few days — and which Rashed had hoped the doctor would look into, went untreated.
Before he returned for his fourth appointment, he raised the issue of payment with his boss. “Boss say, ‘no problem – you go there and call me’ ” The boss would not be accompanying him to the hospital. “I busy that day,” he said. There is a hint of bitterness in Rashed’s voice as he recounts this. The line has been worn out with use, repeated too many times to be trusted, yet rarely lived up to. Sure enough, his boss ignored all the calls that Rashed made on the day of the appointment.
Lawyers and migrant workers; foxes in chicken coops
“I talk to my friend because so hard… my back pain and my hand pain… He gave me [a] number and told me to call it”. This number led Rashed to Law Firm X (name withheld to protect Rashed).
At the law firm, “they tell me, ‘if you don’t have money, you can borrow from friends and then go to hospital… we will help you get back all the money’”. Based on this advice, Rashed borrowed a total of $1,500 from friends and his family back in Bangladesh.
Law Firm X then directed Rashed to a private orthopaedic clinic (again name withheld to protect Rashed) located at a private hospital on the basis that he would receive “better treatment” there. He only discovered later – much later, and, indeed, far too late – that this clinic was far more expensive than public hospitals. Each visit cost $85.60, and Rashed was told to visit the clinic three times a month.
The law firm also instructed Rashed to visit their office each time he received a medical receipt, to entrust it to their care. This was the sole purpose of these visits, and one must wonder: were these ‘visits’ to the law firm also chargeable to Rashed? Rashed eventually stopped visiting both the clinic and the law firm when he ran out of money. “Lawyers do nothing… do nothing… Now I don’t have any money… People calling me to give back money… But boss haven’t paid me… How can I pay?”, frustration evident in his words.
Unfortunately for Rashed, Law Firm X “doing nothing” turned out to be the least of his problems.
Consequential to what can be described as a ‘cultural mismatch’, migrant workers often assume that, like in their home countries, in Singapore too they need the services of someone acquainted with the ‘who’s who’ here. They are victim to the misconception that you need connections to get results. The societal fiction that lawyers are ‘well-connected’ and ‘well-qualified’ has yet to be dispelled.
Moreover, what is well-known – to us at TWC2, but not necessarily to the workers – is that the men helping them may not actually be legally qualified. Not a small number of the firms that ‘specialise’ in dealing with migrant workers engage Bangladeshi paralegals. The paralegals sometimes exceed their authority by actively dishing out ‘legal’ advice to the men and engaging in other malpractice, including champerty. (see box at left.)
When Rashed confided in TWC2 about his frustrations with Law Firm X, we offered to assist him. Another volunteer from TWC2 assisted Rashed in drafting a letter of discharge to his lawyer. However,Law Firm X denied receipt of this letter. The volunteer then accompanied Rashed to the law firm to confirm the discharge in person. Left with little choice, they accepted this, but then refused to return any of Rashed’s documents on the basis that Rashed had not paid for their services. It is puzzling why – and how – they felt they had the authority to do this. This will be further discussed below.
Dollars for documents
Law Firm X’s practices are bizarre and would even be rather comical if the worker’s injury compensation were not at stake. Four aspects of their behaviour towards Rashed are particularly noteworthy.
(A) Biplob: The passport runner
From what Rashed and other men who hired the same law firm have described, there is a man named Biplob who works for the law firm and whose job includes holding on to workers’ passports. However, since MOM insists on seeing the men’s passports each time (and it could be weekly) they extend the men’s Special Passes (so that the workers can stay on to resolve their salary or injury claims), Biplob has to show up at the ministry to pass to the respective worker his passport to enable the worker to present it to an MOM officer at the counter. Then Biplob will demand the passport back straight after the Special Pass has been extended.
On the ‘Special Pass extension day’ after discharging the law firm, Rashed did not see why he should return his passport to Biplob. Biplob however insisted on having it back. As for the the lawyer having been discharged, he told Rashed that he “did not know about this” and if Rashed wanted to keep his own passport, he should deal with Law Firm X, at their office. “This is my job… I will get into trouble”, he pleaded with Rashed, as he trailed him around Hall A of the MOM building. Rashed felt harried.
(B) Legal advice: Borrow lots of money
As briefly noted above, Law Firm X encouraged Rashed to borrow money from his friends and family to receive treatment for his injuries at an upmarket private healthcare clinic. What they failed to tell him was how much more he would need to keep borrowing, to avoid cessation of treatment, and later, to obtain the medical reports required to pursue his claim for injury compensation.
(C) Medical reports: Pay hundreds of dollars for a sheet or two of paper
According to Rashed, the law firm did not at the start inform him that there were two different routes to pursue his claim: (i) a statutory remedy through the Workman Injury Compensation Act (WICA) and (ii) a private lawsuit under common law.
Under the former, the claim would be reported to MOM and the ministry would conduct the necessary investigation, contacting the hospital doctors, at no extra expense for Rashed. This is the chief reason why MOM and TWC2 strongly advise workers that they do not need to engage lawyers for the WICA route. In contrast, the latter route would require Rashed to obtain the requisite medical reports at his own expense, in order to present them in court.
Rashed ended up being confused about the two, probably because at the start, the pros and cons of both routes were not clearly distinguished for him. While his understanding was that his case was moving though WICA, he still had to pay for his own medical reports. According to Rashed, Law Firm X told him that he had to find the money to pay for the medical reports as “the MOM officers required them” to proceed. West Point Hospital said their medical report would cost $86. The orthopaedic clinic said theirs would cost $535.
When I first spoke to Rashed he was in extreme distress. He had managed to fork out the $86.00 for the first report, but how was he to find the $535.00 for the seocnd report? He was already heavily in debt. Was he to burden his father back home in Bangladesh even further? He had come to Singapore to earn money. Not to lose it.
Yet, without obtaining the second report, his claim for compensation — or so he thought at that point in time — could not proceed.
In reality, MOM needed nothing of the sort. Law Firm X had entirely misrepresented the situation. A quick check on Rashed’s WICA status and a phone call to the orthopaedic clinic in question revealed that MOM investigations were underway, and the clinic had already responded to MOM’s questionnaire about the incident and the injuries the workers suffered. The personal distress that Rashed was suffering, the doubt and guilt that he was burdened with, were entirely unfounded and unnecessary.
(D) Rashed’s documents gone missing
Law Firm X held on to all Rashed’s documents and medical bills. When, after discharging the law firm, Rashed requested for his documents back, they claimed to have sent “all” documents to his employer and to have mail receipts to prove this. Firstly, it is baffling why they deemed it appropriate to send the original copies of all documents, without remaining accountable for them. The norm that most law firms would adopt would be to either (i) send copies of the documents or (ii) to arrange a meeting with the employer and produce the original copies of the documents. The receipts the law firm eventually produced, purportedly showing that the employer had received “all” the documents, showed me merely indicate that ‘documents’ were sent. They do not list what documents were sent. This would prove another problem.
At his pre-Labour court hearing in the last week of October, Rashed was told that his employer denied receiving most of his medical bills. He now bears the burden of trying to obtain new originals of the bills from the orthopaedic clinic (if this is possible). He has been advised by the MOM officer handling his case that the clinic may charge him once again for the work involved.
Rashed’s ‘lawyer’ unconcerned about formal complaint to Law Society
I attempted to intervene on Rashed’s behalf, first by writing a letter to Law Firm Xrequesting the return of all remaining documents and the receipt to prove that the documents had been sent. After all, s. 41(b) of the Legal Profession (Professional Conduct) Rules (“LP(PC)R”) clearly states that
… in the case where the outstanding fees are not agreed or paid, release all documents and offer any such assistance as may be necessary to enable any other advocate and solicitor instructed to take over the matter upon receiving an undertaking to protect his lien upon such documents.
Despite this, Law Firm X had told Rashed and TWC2’s other volunteer, in no uncertain terms, that he could not receive the documents till he paid the legal fees. However, it had given no indication what these fees are, or made any proper arrangements for him to give an undertaking. My letter was ignored.
It took several calls to Law Firm X to get to the heart of the matter – the preliminary calls are detailed in the box at left. But even when I reached a certain Mubarak, I received no co-operation.
“What is the problem????”, the ‘lawyer’ barked into the phone, before I could enquire as to who I was speaking to. My only logical deduction was that I was speaking to Mubarak, the ‘lawyer’ that Rashed had told me was ‘handling’ his case.
It is worth noting at this point that Mubarak is not registered as a lawyer on the Law Society website. His name card is a hand-written scribble of his name and a phone number on a ‘Law Firm X’ card. It looks rather unprofessional.
I informed Mubarak of what T had asked and stated that the issue in timing created a breach of s. 41(b). “Okay, we will give him back the documents but then you must be the guarantor that he will pay us for our work!”, he forcefully declared.
Beyond the fact that its questionable what work Law Firm X has done for Rashed – apart from losing his documents in the mail, causing him to pay large medical fees and attempting to hold his passport against his will – there was no reason why I should guarantee anything. It was the law firm’s responsibility to determine the client’s ability to pay before they took the case on. Moreover, I had no personal relationship to Rashed that would warrant my serving as his guarantor.
Perhaps most of this was lost on Mubarak. He raised his voice and shouted, “I will not give you the documents!” I then reiterated that this was a clear breach of the above-cited regulations. Perhaps this too was lost on Mubarak. “You can continue with whatever proceedings you want… I will face the relevant authority!”, he announced, bold and brazen.
Rashed has now filed a formal complaint with the Law Society against the firm.
Hopes for a conclusion
This is not a one-off incident. Law firms acting through unethical unregistered ‘lawyers’ is a recurring, systemic virus that plagues the migrant worker community. There are approximately 19 law firms that TWC2 has identified as engaging in some sort of misbehaviour or providing inadequate services, with specific respect to these transient workers. This includes the falsification of documents and gross overcharging.
There is no easy redress. The chief obstacle blocking redress lies within the fact that it is migrant workers facing this injustice.
An option is for the workers to lodge a complaint with the Law Society (under either s. 75B Legal Profession Act (“LPA”) (‘inadequate professional service’) or s. 85(1) LPA (‘professional misconduct’)). However, to our knowledge, none of the complaints made have reached a satisfactory resolution. Beyond the language difficulties that workers may face in asserting their claims, the Law Society, in the cases we know of, has taken approximately two months to review the claim and form an inquiry committee. Although it is understood that the sensitive nature of the claims necessitates a long review period, by this time the workers have long left Singapore. They are unable to stay once their Special Pass has been revoked. This may explain Mubarak’s unconcern about the prospect of a Law Society complaint. Knowing that Rashed will soon leave Singapore once his WICA case is concluded, the balance of probabilities favours Mubarak and Law Firm X escaping, scot-free.
It is hoped that the complaint Rashed has now made will be dealt with both speedily and efficaciously, and that Mubarak will bear the full brunt of the consequences of his callous actions.