By Pat Meyer
At TWC2, we expect to be helping workers with employer-related problems. But at least as often, we find ourselves dealing with problems created by doctors and lawyers.
It was raining hard Tuesday night as TWC2’s meal programme in Little India was about to begin. One of the first men we met that evening was Hossen, who had his right arm in a sling with a plastic bag over his hand and wrist to keep it dry. He was injured earlier in the month, and had no idea how to proceed to secure his right to better medical care. He hoped to find out more from TWC2. Speaking in limited English and his native Bengali, he recounted his story with the help of several Bengali speakers who also eat at the meal programme.
At the time of his accident, he had been carrying rubbish bags on stairs. His safety shoe slipped on the wet steps and he fell, injuring his right forearm. He was taken to a doctor at Island Orthopaedic Consultants at Mt Alvernia Hospital. There his arm was treated and he received two days medical leave (MC) and 14 days of light duty. The latter meant that he would have to return to work at a construction site, where he works as a general labourer. He would also be paid his full salary. The problem TWC2 often sees is that there is seldom anything like “light duty” at construction sites; there is only heavy work.
When he removed the plastic bag and showed us the pictures on his handphone, we could see the full extent of his injuries – and like Hossen, we too wondered how he could perform any duties at a construction site.
Did the doctor really think that two days’ medical leave was sufficient for his arm to heal?
Hossen then further explained how his MC had been decided. The doctor told him that before he could issue him an MC, he had to check with Hossen’s boss first. Apparently, the doctor followed the boss’s instructions, prescribing just the two days on the medical certificate, followed by 14 days light duty. The effect is clear: the accident is deemed to be insufficiently serious to be mandatorily reportable to the Work Safety Department of the Ministry of Manpower.
But is that professional conduct on the doctor’s part?
Hossen was trying to navigate the work injury system without a lawyer. Veerappan, whom we met later the same evening, had been assisted by a lawyer for more than one year. Yet he too was faced with a problem — money. He had not yet received a single day of MC pay, which he was entitled to, and which, under the law, should have been paid to him once a month just as salary should be paid.
One could argue that his lawyer saw his role as being engaged to handle only compensation for the work injury. But Veerappan, unaware of how systems work in Singapore, assumed that he could entrust oversight of all issues related to the injury to the lawyer.
Veerappan was working after midnight at his worksite near City Hall MRT when he fell into a hole, one or two stories deep, landing on his head and shoulder. He injured his left ear, left shoulder, lost all vision in his left eye and required extensive plastic surgery on the left side of his head and chest.
By providing housing and directing Veerappan to TWC2’s meal programme, the lawyer has met his client’s most basic needs, but he has neglected to press the matter of MC pay. Moreover, instead of pressing the employer (or pressing MOM to remind the employer) to live up to its legal responsibility to provide accommodation and food to Veerappan, the lawyer has Veerappan in a sort of trap. However unhappy Veerappan now may be with his lawyer, he will find it hard to discharge him. Doing so would lose him the roof over his head which is being provided by the lawyer.
Not that accommodation by the lawyer would be free. Eventually, when the injury compensation arrives, the lawyer will deduct an arbitrary amount as rent. Veerappan will likely be left with much less than he expects.
Is that professional conduct on the lawyer’s part?