By Shona Mac
It is a busy Monday evening at Transient Workers Count Too’s Cuff Road Project and there is a throng of men queuing to receive a meal and milling around chatting to the team of volunteers. Abdus Salam is patiently waiting to speak to his TWC2 case worker who is currently busy with another man. He sits down and I strike up a conversation. He is 41 years old and came to Singapore from Bangladesh in 2001 to work in the construction industry. He speaks good English, is eager to chat and, despite his circumstances, is quick to smile.
“What is your case about?” I ask.
“I hurt my back at work” he tells me. “I fall down a hole three metres deep. Big pain.”
I express my sympathy and ask how his treatment is progressing. Abdus tells me that his treatment has finished a long time ago – his accident occurred in December 2011. I am shocked.
“Four years ago? Why is your case still going?” I exclaim.
“Four years, three months ago,” he corrects me. “Employer no pay, employer still no pay.”
After Abdus’s workplace accident he had two MRI scans of his back and two doctors at two separate hospitals recommended surgery. However, his employer refused to pay for any further treatment.
Entrusted his case to a lawyer
Six months after his accident, still unable to work and owed medical leave wages (“MC pay”), Abdus moved out of the company dorm and into a room in Little India. Soon after he hired a lawyer and commenced a claim against his employer under the Workplace Injury Compensation Act (WICA). Action under WICA can be commenced without a lawyer; however many migrant workers are either unaware of this, or, are pressured into hiring a lawyer, either by the lawyers themselves or by other workers who give them well-meaning but incorrect advice.
Unfortunately for Abdus, his lawyer did little to advance his case. Abdus reports that his lawyer never answered his telephone calls, didn’t show up to meetings and that nothing happened on his case for a long period of time. According to Abdus, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) also had difficulty tracking down Abdus’s lawyer and he received phone calls from MOM trying to reach his lawyer on multiple occasions!
In 2013 Abdus’s lawyer finally contacted him, “but lawyer change his mind and say he no help me no more,” his only explanation being that Abdus’s injury happened “too long ago.” I can only speculate that he realised Abdus’s case was not going to be easy money and wasn’t worth his time and effort.
More than two years later, Abdus’s case has still not been resolved. He has been relying on his brother, who moved to Singapore for work in 2013, for a bed and most of his daily needs, with occasional meals from TWC2 and other non-government organisations.
Employer had no insurance?
Abdus’s final medical assessment was conducted in October 2015. As he never had the recommended surgery on his back, he is still in pain every day. His injury was assessed as resulting in a 25% permanent incapacity – a very severe injury – and he was awarded over $30,000 in compensation. He is yet to receive a single dollar.
I ask Abdus why he still hasn’t received the money but he simply shrugs his head. TWC2’s Case Worker, who has finished with her previous client and has been listening to my conversation with Abdus, steps in and tells me, “the problem with Abdus’s case is that his employer had no insurance, so the employer is personally liable to pay the compensation.”
Whilst all employers are required by law to have workplace injury insurance for their workers, TWC2’s case worker speculates that either the employer lied on the pre-employment forms and nobody checked the validity of the insurance at the time when Abdus came to work for the company, or, whilst Abdus’s employer did have insurance when Abdus commenced work, at some point in time he stopped paying the insurance premiums and Abdus’s cover lapsed. Regardless of how it came about, this is a terrible situation for Abdus to be in.
Since his compensation was awarded Abdus has attended several Labour Court meetings with his former employer and MOM. He must attend these meetings alone. Whilst an English to Bangla interpreter is present, Abdus reports that often his former employer is yelling “in Chinese” and he has no idea what is going on.
TWC2’s case worker, through telephone calls to MOM, has found out that Abdus’s ex-employer is now, at the eleventh hour, trying to assert that Abdus’s accident never occurred at work in the first place. Up until now the fact that the accident occurred at work had never been contested.
With the help of TWC2, Abdus has found another former employee of the company who has a new job in Singapore and has agreed to give video testimony that will be played at Abdus’s next Labour Court meeting. While hopefully the Court will be convinced by the witness’s evidence, it is highly likely that the employer will find a new tactic to drag out the matter further and try and avoid paying out the money owed to Abdus.
So what happens next? Abdus continues to hope that, after four years and three months of living without a source of income and waiting for his case to be settled, he will finally receive the money he is owed and he can return to Bangladesh. Abdus’s compensation payout may be the last support he is able to give his family for the foreseeable future as, due to both his age and the severity of his back injury, his prospects of securing a new job, either at home or in a foreign country, are very limited.
Yet, the case worker thinks the likelihood of Abdus eventually getting any money is not high. “Unfortunately we’ve seen a few similar cases, none of which have had a positive outcome for the worker. If Abdus’s former employer simply refuses to pay, he’ll most likely be fined by MOM. In all likelihood, the fine will probably be a lot less than the compensation the employer is supposed to pay.”
Amazingly, the law allows conviction and payment of the fine to extinguish the employer’s liability to pay compensation to the worker.
Despite these odds, TWC2 and Abdus will continue to exhaust all available options and fight to get the money he is owed.