Sadhin worked for a small roofing company. He was, in fact, the only worker and he and his boss were often the only two on the job. On 17 October 2013 Sadhin was working on the roof of a private home, tasked with cleaning the roof before the repairs could begin. In the process he disturbed a ball of ‘bees’ — possibly hornets — that then turned on him with a vengeance.
The employer, standing on the ground below, was observing Sadhin while he worked with his safety harness attached. As soon as Sadhin was attacked, he unfastened his safety strap, flung off his helmet, and ran like crazy over the roof to the opposite side where the ladder was leaning against the building. In his panic he slid and fell, having suffered what he estimates as forty or fifty bee stings, as well as injuries to his back. As for why he unfastened the harness, “After I push the bee house, you think what? Bee want to love me? No, bee want to kill me!”
The first to reach him as he lay on the ground was the boss, who told him right off not to mention the fall from the roof. He was taken to the company clinic and told to rest. Ten days later, when he felt his spine and pelvis should be looked at, he went on his own to the emergency department at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) on 27 October 2013.
He was seen in total fourteen times at TTSH between October 2013 and December 2014 for this injury. At the first visit, he had X-rays taken of his lumbosacral spine and pelvis. He also received an optical coherence tomography (OTC) in March 2014, and an MRI of the lumbar spine in July 2014, which was paid for by the employer. The other visits were for consultations and therapeutic sessions. Sadhin paid a total of $459.90, his employer paid $939.42, and $518.79 remains outstanding.
Although the hospital history suggests an injury consistent with a fall from the roof, the employer would have reason to dispute it. He was the only foreign employee at this company and his employer would be likely to have difficulties in hiring a replacement if a safety violation were detected. Furthermore, Sadhin had only been working a few months when he fell.
A mess-up with dates
TWC2 was not involved in this case until Sadhin produced his court order dated 5 March 2015 stating that the claim is dismissed and no compensation is ordered to the claimant. Had the injury been accepted he would have been entitled to medical leave wages for four and a half months, the cost of medical treatment, and compensation for any permanent incapacity. Not only did the court order deny him those amounts, but he was also ordered to pay $500 to the respondents, i.e. his employer.
When he received the court order, Sadhin believed the confusion to have arisen from a mix-up in the dates of his hospital visits. In a letter to Sadhin’s lawyer, the hospital letter of April 2014 states:
“Mr. Sadhin was first seen at the specialist outpatient clinics of Orthopaedic Surgery on 30 July 2013…He was given medical leave from 27 October to 14 February.”
Sadhin’s lawyer wrote back questioning these dates as medical leave given three months after the visit to the orthopaedic clinic is unusual. The hospital wrote back in July 2014 with this clarification:
“Mr. Sadhin was first seen at the accident and emergency department on 27 October 2013 and subsequently in the Specialist Orthopaedics Outpatient Clinic on 30 October 2014.”
Sadhin’s work injury compensation claim would be processed by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Perhaps taking the erroneous date of 30 July 2013 and attempting to establish that Sadhin had suffered from a fall earlier than the date he claimed (i.e. 27 October 2013), the ministry wrote asking the hospital to confirm that Sadhin had been seen at the specialist outpatient clinics on 30 July 2013. He had only started working that month and has a pay slip to show that he not only worked that day but worked overtime as well: he denies being injured on that date.
The doctor replied to MOM that he had in fact been seen on 30 July 2014 — note the year. This is substantiated by tax invoices that show visits for consultation and physiotherapy.
“To further answer your queries, Mr. Sadhin was seen by myself on the 30th of July 2014 and the there was no visit to the Orthopaedic clinics prior to the 30th of Oct 2013… All his visits to the Orthopaedic clinics and his medical leave from the 27th of October 2013 to the 14th of February were pertaining to his injury sustained.”
It appears that MOM then assumed the year to be in error. Rather than focus on the contradiction between 30 July 2013 and the dates of his visits and his medical leave, an MOM officer scratched out the year 2013 and wrote by hand 2014, apparently proceeding on the assumption that the hospital was again in error.
When the consequences for the worker are as serious as they were for Sadhin, extreme care should be taken in noting dates. This appears to be a simple human error in the first letter from the hospital, and repeated in a letter from MOM. Sadhin saw it as a conspiracy between the MOM and the hospital to deny the validity of the accident, even though the hospital’s first letter to the law firm gives a detailed explanation of how the accident occurred, of Sadhin’s complaints, of treatment given, and of the magnetic resonance scan that was delayed for lack of payment.
One can understand why he might have thought the authorities were conspiring against him, given the ridiculous situation he found himself in, unable to have his injury claim accepted, out of pocket for medical costs, not entitled to medical leave wages, and denied an assessment to determine permanent injury. Many injury compensation claims are determined to be invalid due to lack of evidence, and many men are given no compensation when no permanent incapacity results from the injury. It is also unclear why some claims are referred to the Commissioner for Labour (commonly known as the Labour Court) for adjudication.
At the Labour Court
Sadhin’s case was referred to the Labour Court, though he did not inform TWC2 in advance about it. Perhaps he did not realise the significance of it; perhaps his case officer at MOM should have taken the trouble to explain the process and importance of this step to him. In any case, we couldn’t have accompanied him into the hearing; MOM has barred all outside parties from attending to assist the worker.
He came out of the hearing even more perplexed. Presided over by an Assistant Commissioner for Labour, the Order said:
“Claim is dismissed and no compensation is ordered to the Claimant under Section 25D(b) of the Work Injury Compensation Act (Chapter 354). It is ordered that the Claimant is to pay the costs of S$500 to the Respondents.”
The respondents were the employer and the insurer.
Interestingly, the Order did not state what the injury date was, but the cover letter that MOM added to the order said the injury date was 17 October 2013 — which was correct. If MOM had finally accepted 17 October as the injury date, why was the claim dismissed? Or was MOM still disputing the date even at the hearing? Sadhin couldn’t tell us.
Instead, according to him, the Assistant Commissioner initially asked his employer to pay the medical fees, pay $5,000 to Sadhin, in return for Sadhin withdrawing the claim, but the employer refused. This report suggests a train of thought (on the Assistant Commissioner’s part) so different from what emerged in the Order that it is not clear that Sadhin’s recall of events was accurate or that he even understood what was going on in the proceedings — precisely why TWC2 argues that it is unfair to workers for MOM to deny NGOs entry to Labour Court proceedings.
An appeal to the High Court?
Sadhin was eager to take his case further. The law allows appeals to the High Court. TWC2 found a law firm (not the same one that represented Sadhin in the months post-injury) that was interested in speaking with Sadhin to assess if they could take up his case. But we had to move fast, for once the Labour Court had issued its order, the employer was free to repatriate the man.
TWC2 informed MOM that Sadhin was considering an appeal, and asked for an extension of his Special Pass to enable him to explore his legal options. The reply we received was that the Special Pass had already been extended a week, and also that Sadhin did not mention anything about an appeal when MOM spoke directly with him. Unfortunately, before that confusion was figured out, we were surprised on 19 March 2015 to hear that Sadhin had been given his airticket and was scheduled to fly out that very day itself.
One might say that he had his chance, but the odds against him were high. The only witness to the accident was the very person who had reason to deny the validity of the claim. Errors in dates may have obstructed, or at least confused the claim. The opportunity to challenge the Labour Court order was made more difficult given the lack of time and misunderstanding about the date of the extension.
Sadhin returned home, frustrated, penniless, distraught, and with a strong sense of righteous indignation about this incident.