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By Sun Hanchen
Hasan Kamroul was a marine trades worker, working at Benoi Shipyard. 7 December 2016 was supposed to be just another normal work night for him, but all changed several hours into his shift. Having been tasked to move some 26-inch pipes with two of his fellow workers, Kamroul set about doing his job. But a short while later, the crowbar he was using got stuck. In an attempt to release it, the crowbar hit his inner elbow.
Stricken with pain, Kamroul shouted for help.
His supervisor was alerted. “You take a rest,” Kamroul recounted the words of his supervisor. Not even basic first aid was offered, let alone any professional medical assistance. And why not? “Our company medical… cut a lot of money [from salary],” he explained. Kamroul’s understanding is that the employer would deduct medical expenses from workers’ salaries. This practice is downright illegal under Singapore law pertaining to Work Permit holders. Employers are to be responsible for medical care.
The next morning, still in pain, and unable to exert strength using his left hand, Kamroul paid a visit to Tan Tock Seng Hospital. When queried by TWC2 why he did not seek medical attention at the shipyard’s on-site medical centre immediately after hurting himself, Kamroul responded he thought subcontractors were not allowed access to medical centres. Again, this is unlikely to be the case, but why Kamroul believed so is uncertain.
A senior TWC2 volunteer speculated: “Was this notion implanted among workers so that they would not seek medical help there?” Medical centres keep records of accidents that occurred, a record that subcontractors might find “inconvenient”.
At Tan Tock Seng hospital, the doctor ordered an X-ray and prescribed medicine for his injury. Fortunately, no bones were broken as confirmed by the X-ray, but X-rays do not show if there is any soft tissue injury. The doctor asked Kamroul to return in March 2017 to go through an MRI scan, which would allow the doctors to assess the exact severity of the injury.
MRI scans in Singapore cost over a thousand dollars without subsidy. The hospital thus asked the employer to provide a Letter of Guarantee to the hospital, i.e. provide an undertaking that the company would pay for the procedure. Days, weeks and months soon went by, but there was no sign of a letter of guarantee. Eventually, with neither the letter nor obviously his own financial resources, Kamroul missed his MRI appointment. That entailed another two months of waiting for a rescheduled date: 26 May 2017.
Kamroul will return to Tan Tock Seng Hospital on 26 May for his rescheduled scan – if he gets the Letter of Guarantee, that is.
According to Debbie Fordyce, TWC2 executive committee member and leader of the Cuff Road Food Project,
Employers issue a Letter of Guarantee (LOG) for workers to seek their required medical treatment only if they agree that the injury resulted from a work-related accident. The employer suspicion that a fraudulent claim has been made usually results in failure to issue the LOG. When this happens, workers will first need to prove that it was indeed a workplace injury, but it can be difficult for a worker to prove the validity of his case. Firstly, employers, with vast resources and power at their disposal, are able to entice other employees to downplay or cover up the existence of the accident. The co-workers would be putting their own livelihoods on the line if they refuse to obey, and hence acquiesce to their employer’s demands to tell investigating authorities that they saw nothing, or that no accident happened. Secondly, with an “invisible” injury, such as Kamroul’s, it is difficult to prove that an injury occurred – and impossible to prove that it happened at a certain place and on a specific day.
Many workers from Bangladesh coming for their first job are young and inexperienced. Employers may tend to mistrust them, and assume they’re out to take advantage of the Work Injury Compensation system in hopes of being awarded an attractive monetary compensation or in order to work illegally (at a higher rate of pay) while waiting for the case to conclude.
As a result, employers are too quick to suspect false claims. Continuing, Debbie says,
Some workers whose employers don’t issue the Letter of Guarantee are forced to pay of their pocket for their treatment, an unfeasible if not inhumane solution in a case like Kamroul’s. Given the nature of his injury, he will likely need to undergo physiotherapy and possibly mental health counselling sessions as part of his recuperation.
While we acknowledge the concerns of the company over fraudulent claims, workers often end up being put into a corner they are unable to escape from with regards to treatment costs. Without being given immediate medical help and perhaps discouraged from going to the shipyard’s medical centre, there would be no documentation that he injured himself the night he said he did.
So what may have happened here is that an already disempowered and disadvantaged worker is now further disadvantaged — denied an MRI and proper treatment, since doctors won’t be able to see what soft tissue damage is there. This should be seen for what it is: a deplorable situation.
And there’s more, this time over salary.
Kamroul has been unable to work since the accident. He cannot fully utilise his left arm, as pain comes the moment he tries to flex his muscles there.
Unusually for a work injury case, he continues to hold a valid Work Permit. Officially, his is still an employee of the company. But since January 2017, he has not received any salary. Legislation states that workers are to at least receive their basic salary each month even if the employer assigns no work. “Not pay”, says Kamroul when asked whether he has received any salary since January.
To top it off – Kamroul was not even aware about his entitlement to basic salary till this is made known to him during this interview!
One of TWC2’s social workers spoke with Kamroul at the end of May. He said the scheduled MRI scan date of 26 May came and went. Once again, the employer has not provided a Letter of Guarantee.
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