Worker asks an inconvenient question, finds himself out of a job

Posted by on May 25, 2015 in Articles, Stories

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By William Chin

The laws are there and the processes are supposed to be in place to help employees who have been injured at work. Saiful’s story however, gives a glimpse of the hoops that migrant workers have to jump through and the price they pay.

On 3 December 2013, Saiful Islam Lokman Hossain sustained injury to his finger during work for his employer Ocean Way Engineering Construction. It happened at the Gul shipyard owned by Keppel. It seems to have been a serious injury as he was given 34 days of medical leave, followed by four months of light duty. Then he went back to his job.

Fourteen months later, he was still in the dark about his injury compensation. He tells TWC2 that he has no idea of what happened to the insurance claim or whether it has even been filed at all by his employer.

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Potential hiccups in the process

A page on the Ministry of Manpower’s website explains a simple five-step process. It says:

Step 1: Report Incident
Step 2: File Claim
Step 3: Go for Medical Assessment
Step 4: Receipt of Notice of Assessment
Step 5: Dispute Resolution*

*if there’s any dispute about the assessed compensation

Under Step 1, the employee should pass the medical leave certificate and medical bills to his employer to claim medical leave wages and for the employer to settle the medical bill. That Saiful did. He also relied on the employer to file an insurance claim.

Unfortunately, MOM’s webpage does not make it clear how a worker can check whether the employer has notified MOM of the accident and therefore activated the claim process. Saiful seems to have assumed the employer would do its part.

Another webpage on MOM’s site tells employers that:

If your worker has more than 3 days MC (consecutive or otherwise), find out if the injury or condition is related to work. If so, submit a report via iReport within 10 days, from the 4th day of the medical leave or diagnosis of occupational disease. Failure to do so is an offence.

Although not clearly stated on the first webpage referenced above, MOM has provided multiple options for workers to check whether a claim has been filed and its progressive status. A worker can do so through phone texting, online at MOM’s website, or even a personal visit to MOM Services Centre. The reality however, is that these avenues are useful to workers like Saiful only if they know of them.

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Sent on a trip, but no answers

On 3 April 2015, Saiful asked his employer (Ocean Way Engineering Construction) about the status of the insurance claim. He was told that (the insurance claim was) “still processing”. On 11 April, he asked again, but the answer this time was that this matter was “Keppel problem”. Keppel is the shipyard owner and main contractor. In the offshore and marine engineering industry, it is normal for work to be outsourced to subcontractors such as Ocean Way.

On 14 April, he went to the office of Keppel at their Gul base — where he had been working and where the accident occurred — but this time was told “go Keppel Tuas” which is another shipyard. On 16 April — his recollection could be off by a day or two — he went to Keppel Tuas as instructed. This time he was told “not Keppel problem”.

Around the same period, Saiful enquired among his friends for a lawyer’s contact, and engaged a law firm to help expedite the matter. The law firm, and probably Keppel too, communicated with Ocean Way, and things soon came to a head. The next thing Saiful knew, he was being roundly scolded over the phone by someone from Ocean Way’s office. He was told to “go office (of Ocean Way) see boss” on 17 April.

By this point, it was occurring to him that his employer had not filed a claim, but this lapse is now coming to light to both Keppel and the Ministry of Manpower, to whom his lawyer had written. His boss cannot be pleased.

“Sometimes company take gangster send back (to Bangladesh),” Saiful describes the thoughts going through his head that day. His friend Hossin Alomgir who is present during the interview nods in concurrence.

Why might en employer do that? TWC2 Treasurer Alex Au explains: “A boss may feel that once an accident and his negligence in reporting it has been revealed, the quickest way to hush up the matter would be to bundle the worker out of the country. MOM does not pro-actively pursue an investigation when the man has gone home, even when the man has been forcibly repatriated.”

“The insurance claim — if at all it has been lodged —  also lapses when the man is repatriated, so employer and insurance company avoid a financial loss.”

Rather than expose himself to the risk of being seized, should he show up at the office, and be sent to the airport, Saiful fled and left the company.

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The laws are there, but….

Firstly, what Saiful’s experience shows is that, while on paper the process should be simple, it gets complicated when employers fail to do what they are supposed to do. Employers may calculate that they will get away with it since MOM has not had a very good record of taking such employers to task. Saiful was caught in the middle as the buck was passed between the subcontractor and the main contractor. 

Secondly, when Saiful — the injured party — started asking about the matter, he ended up being the one paying the price. He lost his job and since he feels unsafe returning to company accommodation, now has to pay for a bunk outside while he waits for the compensation claim to be assessed and finalised.

Remarking on the 14-month delay and the price Saiful has had to pay, Alex says, “Someone has likely screwed up somewhere and jammed up the whole process, and when Saiful began to assert his rights, all he got was finger-pointing and defensive measures.”

 

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A process defect emerges from this story:

Injured workers like Saiful usually have no clue how to activate an insurance claim. They either depend on their employers to do so, or they run to lawyers  — and those lawyers who are most keen to take on such cases are often quite disreputable.

But there is a conflict of interest on the employers’ part, for if they own up to an accident at their worksite, their safety record is blemished with possible financial consequences. Their insurance record is also affected. Many employers have integrity and they will do what is right. But other employers act more out of self-interest, and may try to bury reports of accidents and sit on injury claims.

As the above story points out, workers like Saiful seldom know how to check whether the employer has done what he is expected to do: to notify the authorities and activate an insurance claim.

MOM’s process design further reinforces this defect. The process is routed through the employer when it is the employer which has a conflict of interest. For example, even if a doctor or the employer has informed MOM of a work injury, MOM sends the claim form to the employer, when rightly it should be the employee — the injured party — who should be receiving the form and lodging the claim. TWC2 has seen cases where the employer simply ignores the claim form and fails to notify the worker about it. The worker doesn’t even know that MOM is waiting for the paperwork to be done; he would have no idea that his injury claim has become dormant from neglect.

What solutions should be considered? Clearly, greater effort must be made to open information and communication channels directly with the worker. One way to do so would be to allow NGOs access to dormitories where they stay. That way, workers can get information without having to depend on their employers. A database should also be set up listing all workers’ current addresses in the various dormitories, and MOM should be sending claim forms and other mail directly to workers at these addresses. Using employers to relay forms and information to workers is self-defeating when conflicts of interest arise.

TWC2 is an organization that is dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers when they are in difficulty. We are motivated by a sense of fairness and humanity, though our caseload often exceeds our
means.

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