By Sarah Tong
Kashem was employed by one company but was sent to work for another, a scaffolding company. When he was injured, his employer took the position that the accident happened ‘off-site’, and so refused to pay for treatment.
This is incorrect, but perhaps the boss didn’t know the law.
“Yah, he don’t know!” says Kashem animatedly with a touch of sarcasm. I cannot help but feel incredulous at how such a simple process was complicated by trivial miscommunication.
That process was the hospital’s request for a Letter of Guarantee (LOG) to pay for a needed procedure, a magnetic resonance imaging scan (MRI). Without it, it can be difficult for doctors to arrive at a proper diagnosis.
When I first meet Kashem, I cannot guess that such a cheery man is still recovering from a back injury. However, as I learn more about his story, I slowly understand the source of his bright smiles. He is a lucky man. Things could have turned out much worse.
Kashem, 32, was working at a scaffolding site when the accident occurred on 8 January 2016. It was only six weeks into his second working stint in Singapore. He and a fellow worker were hauling a table atop of which were loaded about 50 kg of steel reinforcement bars. The load was probably too heavy for just two men. Inevitably, his fellow worker’s grip on the table loosened, the weight shifted and the rods began to fall. The sudden shift in weight and direction resulted in an injury at Kashem’s lower back. Being asked to carry heavy rods on a table — “how can it not drop?” Kashem gestures indignantly.
As the accident occurred at 1 am, Kashem only went to the company clinic in Yishun at 10 am in the morning. He received an injection of painkillers and medication, as well as medical leave for three days. Then he learned that he was not entitled to paid sick leave nor to reimbursement of his medical expenses.
Under Section 89 of the Employment Act, paid sick leave is only for workers who have served at least three months.
Kashem’s back continued to hurt after the visit to the clinic. He and his cousin decided to head to Ng Teng Fong General Hospital instead, where he received additional treatment and medication. The cost this time: $108. His cousin paid for him. The doctor at this hospital gave Kashem five months of medical leave, indicating that the back injury was no small matter.
The doctor also ordered an MRI scan, but this procedure costs over a thousand dollars, too much for Kashem or his cousin to fork out. So the hospital asked the employer for the guarantee letter. This was when the boss asserted that he should not be responsible for the matter. Two scheduled dates for the MRI were postponed as a result.
The hospital then informed Kashem that they would not proceed with the MRI unless the the LOG was forthcoming. Or if Kashem or his lawyer paid for it. This led to the intervention of Kashem’s lawyer, who was finally successful in getting Kashem’s boss to provide the LOG.
By this time, the lawyer had filed a work injury compensation claim. Unlike the Employment Act, the Work Injury Compensation Act provides for medical leave wages even if the employee had not yet served three months. Though paid late for the first month (medical leave wages for the first two months were paid together), Kashem soon began to receive regular payments, perhaps through reminders by his lawyer. This helps him immensely in covering his living expenses while the compensation claim is assessed.
It is easy to assume that every worker has certain entitlements, such as medical treatment and paid medical leave. Kashem’s experience indicates that what I view as entitlements may not be so for workers like Kashem. In fact, he had to fight for them, with the help of a lawyer. That he got all that he was supposed to get makes him unusually lucky.
As pointed out by a senior TWC2 volunteer, the Work Injury Compensation Act was intended as a low-cost, no-fault, straightforward way to ensure that workers get appropriate treatment, medical leave wages and due compensation for any permanent disability. “Yet, most of the time in reality, none of these benefits are willingly or promptly given to workers by their employers,” he says. “Some employers get highly obstructive and MOM officers may also take a lenient approach.”
According to him, TWC2 has never heard of MOM taking any employer to court for failing to provide treatment or medical leave wages promptly. There is thus a sense of impunity among bosses.
“Consequently, unless a worker knows about TWC2’s help, he finds that he needs to engage a lawyer to fight his case against the employer’s obstructionism. The completely undermines the low-cost intent of the law!”
After this interview, Kashem also received his compensation for permanent injury to his back. He has since returned to Bangladesh.