Another source of trouble for workers: their own lawyers

Posted by on July 2, 2016 in Articles, Facts, research, analysis, Stories

In the above video, Rashid Harun explains why he discharged his lawyer. He had suffered a workplace injury and engaged a lawyer for his WICA compensation claim. His employer argued that the accident did not take place at work but that he fell while he was in a lavatory (at the worksite). His case was referred to the Labour Court for a ruling as to whether it was a workplace accident, and Rashid relied on his lawyer to defend his claim there…

If the video does not play, go directly to http://youtu.be/E9XzomE5SlE

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Video by Stacey Yuen, text by Debbie Fordyce

Of the 629 injured men2 who registered for The Cuff Road Project3 after having filed a claim for work injury compensation, 560, or 89%, had already engaged a law firm to assist with their claim.

Not all of these law firms act in unethical or unprofessional ways. A few have agreed to take pro bono cases for TWC2 and are genuinely concerned about the welfare of their clients

Not all of the law firms shown here or mentioned in the footnote act in unethical or unprofessional ways. A few have agreed to take pro bono cases for TWC2 and are genuinely concerned about the welfare of their clients

 

This is in spite of the Ministry of Manpower’s clear advice that legal assistance is not necessary for this no-fault compensation system. MOM’s printed information, which we distribute to every man who approaches us for advice or meals, clearly states the process, the rights of the injured workers and the responsibility of the employers. The pamphlet includes the following advice:4

mom_no_lawyer_booklet

However, this information isn’t made available to the injured men by the employers or distributed at MOM locations. It is not displayed at hospital emergency rooms, company clinics, or waiting rooms in the hospital clinics. The hospital administration staff and doctors may be unaware of the importance of this information to injured men, and the responsibility of the employer. They may not be aware either of the possibility that the employer doesn’t have the welfare of his worker in mind.

This information gap creates an opportunity for the employer to repatriate the injured man before he completes his medical treatment and has a chance to file a work injury compensation claim. The employers thus have a financial motive to prevent injured workers from accessing this information: If the man can be sent home, even with enough money to treat the injury in his home country, it will be cheaper than housing the worker, allowing him to receive treatment in Singapore, and paying his compensation if applicable.

On the other hand, employers are legally permitted to repatriate their workers at any time and for whatever reason. Adequate notice is not strictly defined nor adhered to, and for workers who have been with the company for less than 26 weeks, adequate notice could be only one day.

Making profitable use of the pervasive insecurities and ignorance among migrant workers are the law firms who insert themselves in this process. The lawyers and legal assistants offer assurances of tempting compensation amounts, loans to non-working men, and housing. Loans and housing costs will later be deducted from the compensation amount. These promises and the offer of immediate financial assistance serve to entice and control the client. The promises of a positive outcome would be used to prevent the client from switching to another law firm.

Another method to manage clients is retaining documents such as original medical leave certificates, hospital invoices and passports. Still more devious tactics employed by legal representatives are gestures suggestive of physical violence and threats to prevent the client from returning to work again in Singapore. Threats of violence or harm may be used when the client takes action to discharge the law firm or demands documents or evidence of settlement amounts.

For handling a work injury claim, the law firms that focus on injury compensation normally charge ten to fifteen percent of the compensation – rather than an hourly rate – for their services, plus costs and disbursements and additional fees for attending meetings and conferences at MOM. Much larger amounts can be obtained from compensation awarded by a civil suit against the employer. Many injured men tell us that they’re pressured to drop the work injury claim and proceed with a civil suit with enticements of advance payments, earlier repatriation and higher compensation amounts.

A civil suit is advisable when the injury is severe enough to expect a compensation amount exceeding the maximum of $218,000 ($262,000 for injuries after Jan 2016) allowed through MOM’s system, or when that particular injury is not covered by the Work Injury Compensation Act. Very few injured workers fall into these categories.

TWC2 has seen many 'lawyer' cases end up as wrecks

TWC2 has seen many ‘lawyer’ cases end up as wrecks

More typically, the injury or resulting disability is a small or moderate one. Yet, upon enticement by the law firms, the client is persuaded to withdraw from the Work Injury Compensation process, and a civil suit is mounted, at which point, the injured worker is not allowed to remain in Singapore. At the end of it, the worker risks having the case settled in such a way that he has no knowledge of when, how and for how much the case was concluded – but only the amount  he receives from the law firm. The client has the right to ask for this information, but as he is no longer in Singapore, he isn’t likely to know the right question to ask without access to NGOs or legal advice in Singapore. When the lawyer informs him that the global settlement was for $X, he may choose not to reveal that a further $Y was awarded separately as legal costs or party-to-party costs, and charge the client a second time from the global settlement.  The law firm is thus effectively able to conceal from the client the amount of the settlement, whether another amount was awarded as legal costs, or whether the case was decided through negotiation rather than handed down by the court. Having received from the client a signed power of attorney, the law firm is in a position to deny the client access to pertinent documents and information and handle negotiations and agreements on his behalf.

Many men are understandably fearful of being repatriated after suffering an injury. They learn from friends that lawyers can file a work injury claim to prevent this. Unaware that they can do it themselves, and that legal representation has no effect on the compensation awarded through the work injury compensation system, they’re drawn to law firms. Or, as often happens, they are pursued by legal assistants and their touts. Many workers assume that they need an ‘expert’ to navigate the complicated bureaucracy of MOM in seeing the claim through.

TWC2 informs all injured workers that they may discharge their lawyers, and many agree to do so. TWC2 is then able offer much assistance, even with complicated claims. Our experience has been that when injured workers discharge their lawyers, they are also able to receive assistance directly from MOM in ensuring that employers pay medical leave wages, pay hospitals for medical treatment, and in determining the average monthly wages for the purpose of computing compensation. MOM is unable to perform these services for men who have legal representation as they prevented from intervening in the client-lawyer relationship. When men do discharge their legal representative, they discover through hindsight that it’s that very relationship that has blocked their access to MOM.

It’s important to consider why so many men feel the need for a lawyer in the ministry’s no-fault Work Injury Compensation process. Ways have to be devised to help injured workers traverse the landscape of work injury without legal assistance. TWC2 offers assistance that is particularly beneficial in complicated cases where evidence is withheld or insufficient. MOM has also been helpful in assisting injured workers who have not engaged or who have dismissed their legal representatives. We should work towards empowering workers to approach MOM to lodge injury claims on their own in order to prevent them from succumbing to the grip of predatory and avaricious law firms.

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  1. These law firms all represent less than 10 individual clients from this group: Island Law, Subra TT Law LLC, K. Ravi Law Corp, Vicki Heng Law Corp, I.R.B. Law LLC, APEX Law LLP, Sim & Co Lawyers, Vision Law LLC, A.H. Sultan & Assoc, Sim Law Practice LLC, Charan & Co, Jeya & Assoc, Prestige Legal LLP, Sathi Law Chambers, Satwant & Associates, and Virginai Quek Lalita & Partners
  1. During the same six months, 255 men with problems other than work injury compensation claims registered for TCRP.
  1. The Cuff Road Project offers free meals six times each week for men not permitted to work and yet required to remain in Singapore until the conclusion of their case.
  1. The full pamphlet can be viewed here. http://www.mom.gov.sg/~/media/mom/documents/safety-health/publications/wic-guide-for-employees-english.pdf?la=en

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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