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By Troy Lee, based on an interview in May 2017
On the Ministry of Manpower’s website, it is stated that most work injury claims take “3 to 6 months for most cases. Some injuries may need more time to stabilise before a doctor can assess for permanent incapacity.”
However, many of the cases that come to Transient Workers Count Too for assistance stretch well beyond six months, says Alex Au, a senior volunteer with the charity.
“It may well be that an NGO like ourselves tend to see the more serious injuries,” he adds, “but what concerns us is that ministry officials risk lulling themselves into complacency by this ‘average’ of three to six months, and fail to pay attention to those workers whose cases drag on and on.”
While stressing that no two injury cases are alike, he also suggests that a bureaucratic practice of focussing on averages may explain why outliers do not get the attention they deserve. Long-lasting cases, he says, shouldn’t be seen just as a statistical anomaly; they are real people left in limbo, with families getting no income. “Outliers — especially cases that stretch more than one year — should always get special attention as they deserve extra help.”
I am reminded of what a former classmate, now working in the civil service, told me recently: Singapore bureaucracy tends to measure its own performance through average indicators. She mentioned that KPIs [key performance indicators] used by ministries are often averages, be they average household income or average vehicle speed on expressways. These are useful indicators, but when human suffering is involved, shouldn’t there also be attention paid to the last percentile?
To put a face to long-lasting cases, I speak with Sukranjan Situ Howlader. Alex first spotted him – without knowing that his case was already in its fourteenth month – because he was limping visibly as he walked up to TWC2’s free meals programme. His left ankle is bandaged.
Alex explains, “I always make it a point to speak to any worker who looks as if he has a fresh injury.” But we soon discover that Sukranjan’s accident was on 17 March 2016. That was fourteen months from today (the date of the interview).
Sukranjan was working in a shipyard in a tight location next to a stack of heavy steel T-bars. Some metres away from him, a crane was lifting one of the T-bars from the stack, but in doing so, it might have disturbed the stability of the rest of the stack. The T-bars rolled down, one of which came against Sukranjan’s ankle. Given the weight of the steel, the injury to the ankle was no small thing.
He was sent to West Point Hospital in Taman Jurong, where the doctor judged that an operation was needed. Surgery was performed two weeks later, on 31 March 2016, at Mt Alvernia Hospital. A metal rod was inserted to stabilise the ankle joint.
“Three month, I in wheelchair,” says Sukranjan. Fortunately, the dorm in South Tuas Street 7 where he was living in had a lift, but still he had difficulty using the toilet and taking a shower. “Sometimes, five days I never wash.”
He is not sure whether his doctors issued MCs (medical leave certificates) during the first few months after the accident, but it was obvious that he could not be expected to return to work. Perhaps MCs were issued, but given to the company office. It was only in June 2016 that the doctors gave Sukranjan an MC directly. The total number of medical leave days he has, based on the medical certificates given to him directly by the hospital since June, is 150 days.
“But boss never pay me MC money,” he adds, now focussing on his chief unhappiness.
The money angle is rather more complicated. This is because, unlike most other cases seen by TWC2, Sukranjan’s Work Permit remained valid all the way to late February 2017, eleven months after the accident.
Up to June 2016, “boss pay [me] basic salary,” reports Sukranjan. “After June, he stop.”
“Is it because in June, you reported the accident to MOM?” asks Alex, clued in by a number printed on Sukranjan’s Special Pass.
Sukranjan thinks so. “Boss say, ‘Why you make case?’ He not happy.”
The tense relationship between them also meant that Sukranjan had to move out of company accommodation. “Anytime, boss [can] buy air ticket and send me home,” he says, explaining his decision to put himself at a safer distance between him and his employer. His concern may be justified, as according to him, his employer had not reported the accident to the ministry.
“When an employee observes that the employer is not reporting an accident to the authorities, as required by law, it is quite understandable that the employee will fear that the employer’s next logical step may be to rush him out of the country before the worker himself reports the case to the ministry,” explains Alex.
Sukranjan now has to borrow money to pay for his own room in Little India.
The law says that an employer has to pay a foreign worker his basic salary whether or not there is work for the employee. It appears that Sukranjan’s boss followed the law faithfully during the first three months while he was incapacitated.
After June 2016, when Sukranjan was officially on MC, the employer would not need to pay the basic salary, but under the Work Injury Compensation Act, would need to pay him “MC pay”, properly known as Medical Leave Wages. MC pay should be paid monthly, just like the payment of salaries. In this respect therefore, the employer appears not to have followed the law, based on Sukranjan’s report that he has not received any MC pay.
“Why is your ankle still bandaged?” asks Alex. “It’s more than one year since the operation.”
Sukranjan explains that he has recently had a second operation – on 21 April 2017 – to remove the metal rod. It will probably take another few weeks of healing before he can walk again. But since it has been more than 12 months from the accident, the employer’s responsibility to pay MC wages has ended.
Then, how is he to survive without money? Guillotining his right to MC pay when his treatment required a second operation after twelve months doesn’t make a lot of sense.
TWC2 has drawn MOM’s attention to the special needs of such long-drawn cases. “The ministry officials are interested to know about them,” says Alex, “but it isn’t clear what they can do if they can’t find the political will to change the law.”
“Some injuries will take a long time to heal. You just can’t ‘expedite’ the claim process when doctors aren’t ready to certify permanent disability for compensation purposes,” he explains. So there will always be cases that last unusually long. “A better way is to look at the defects in law and regulation, amend them and make appropriate provision — income support and right to medical care — for those with severe injuries who are most in need of help and support.”
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