Akbar is at risk of being cheated thousands of dollars. This story is going to explain how the conditions for this possible outrage has been laid.

6:30 pm, 26 March 2015. He blacks out. Construction worker Akbar Hossain Abdur Rob will not regain consciousness till days later. That gap remains a blank; he only knows what his friends have told him. “Other man [his workmates] say crowbar fall on my head. But I cannot remember,” he says. “No blood come out, but they say I vomitting.” Sounds like a serious head injury.

An ambulance was called and he was taken to Changi General Hospital. “Two days ICU,” Akbar says. “Total 20 days in hospital.”

Following that, “one month in nursing home.”

There's a 10-cm gash at the back of Akbar's head

There’s a 10-cm gash at the back of Akbar’s head

While he was recovering there, “company driver come and give me insurance paper.” The English language form had been filled out, probably by the company clerk, but there were several pages in Bengali to explain the Work Injury Compensation (WICA) process to him. It says something about submitting the form to MOM.

“Today [22 May 2015], I go MOM. I want to ask how to insurance claim.” Noticing that he was clutching a filled-out form, the counter clerk told him to just go to another counter to hand it in. That he did, but it is not altogether clear if he got what he wanted from MOM — an understanding of what would happen next. That however shouldn’t be a major problem; TWC2 can explain it to him and guide him through each stage of the process.

We’re only at Stage One but there’s a problem already.

The WICA process gives to workers a right to compensation for any permanent disability arising from a workplace accident. At this moment, it is not known what permanent disability Akbar will suffer, but with a head injury as serious as that, it is possible there will be some residual damage. After he has completed a course of treatment, doctors will assess him for the degree of permanent disability and this will be expressed in “points”. To convert points to the dollar amount for compensation, factors like his age (as proxy for the number of years of working life he has ahead of him) and salary will be used. Therefore, under-declaring his salary at the initial stage will have a significant bearing on the amount he will receive as compensation.

Although Akbar had handed in the WICA form to MOM earlier in the day, he had the presence of mind to snap a photo of it before coming to TWC2. We look at it, and notice that his “Average Monthly Earnings” (AME) is stated as $900.

A nice round number like that rings alarm bells.

Why?

Basic salaries may well be in round numbers, but when a worker does overtime work, as construction workers often do, or when they also work on Sundays and public holidays, the resulting total is almost never a round number. The calculations for overtime pay are fairly complex, and they typically yield numbers with the odd dollar and some figure in cents.

Then when you take several months’ total earnings and derive an average (which is what “Average Monthly Earnings” is about) , it is even less likely to result in a round number.

So, when we see a round number entered into a form like this, we can safely bet that it was a number plucked from thin air and that whoever filled it in did not declare it truthfully.

We ask Akbar to show us what documents he has and to detail what he has been paid in recent months.

He has in hand an “In-principle Approval for a Work Permit” issued by MOM which states his basic salary to be $600 a month. Although Akbar says that wasn’t exactly what was promised him — he was told the job would pay $25 a day — a quick calculation shows that $25 a month is roughly equivalent to $600 a month. Not a problem here.

akbar_hossain_AR_basic

Next, we ask him what he has received in actual salary. He explains that he came to Singapore in the first half of December 2014 to join the job, and for the four months since, he was paid these amounts:

akbar_hossain_AR_earnings

He may not be recalling the exact figures because again there appears to be slight rounding, but that’s the best he can do since he has not been given any documentation. His employer pays him in cash without any accompanying salary slip.  Nonetheless, using the above figures, and pro-rating for the months of December and March — he didn’t work the full month in each case — a close estimate of his Average Monthly Earnings would be $1,293.

That figure is quite a distance from the $900 declared in the WICA form. This difference can translate to thousands of dollars in disability compensation further down the road.

Akbar will inform MOM that the employer’s declaration that his AME was only $900 was erroneous. MOM will probably carry out an investigation and ask the employer for supporting documents. The employer should then, rightly, submit the payment vouchers bearing Akbar’s signatures, but if they do so, they will disprove their own $900 figure. They may stand accused of making a false declaration to a governmental body.

TWC2 has repeatedly seen cases where employers, in such a fix, submit forged payment vouchers showing lower amounts. In such situations, MOM tells the workers that it is now up to them to prove that the vouchers were forged. This is completely unreasonable. What practical means have workers to prove this? Like the crowbar that fell on Akbar, such a demand if placed on him will knock him out.

We don’t know yet what Akbar’s employer will do, but this loophole could easily have been closed if MOM had mandated that all employers must issue detailed salary computations to their employees and pay salaries though bank. If these two conditions have been in place, it will be a piece of cake establishing how much Akbar was actually paid and how that amount was calculated.

The situation as it is now puts Akbar at a very real risk of losing out. Our experience is that employers stand a good chance of getting away with a crime (forgery).

There is a simple fix:  policy change. Yet, why has this not been done? There is a simple explanation for that too: a lack of political will to do the right thing, a lack of concern for justice.