Two injured workers provide detailed accounts of a law firm’s practices

Posted by on March 23, 2018 in Articles, Stories

This is a long record (approximately 2,800 words) of what two foreign workers told TWC2 about their experiences with the same law firm. They had engaged the law firm following worksite accidents, but were soon unhappy with the relationship. Both workers either experienced or heard that representatives of the law firm made unsolicited and unwelcome contact with their families in India after they discharged their lawyers. The workers viewed such contacts as intention to intimidate. For their safety, we will not reveal the identities of the workers or the people they named, using pseudonyms instead. Nor will we include specific dates or locations which can be used to identify them.

The facts for the main story were collected by TWC2 intern Shawn Wongosari, with the help of TWC2 volunteers who helped translate. The supporting story is by TWC2 volunteer Lalitha. Both stories were taken in January 2018.

Nagesh’s story

Nagesh (not his real name) injured his lower limb and was sent to a private hospital for treatment. While waiting to see the doctor, he was approached by a man who sat down and struck up a conversation. 

Touting

The man asked Nagesh about his injury and problem, and went on to say that he (Nagesh) would need a lawyer to protect him from repatriation by his employer. The man told Nagesh that most of the time, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) would take the side of the employer. A lawyer would therefore be crucial to protect his interests.

The conversation did not last long. Excusing himself, the man said that hospital staff had previously told him that he was not allowed to linger in the waiting area. The man said he would wait outside at the taxi stand for Nagesh instead.

At the taxi stand, the man revealed that he represented a law firm. For this story, we shall call the law firm “Labagaye” (any resemblance to any real firm with a similar name is unintended and purely coincidental). Interested in getting help for his situation, Nagesh passed the man his number and told him that he could be reached at the company hostel.

Inducing anxiety, misleading with half-truths

The next day, Nagesh received a phone call from someone at Labagaye. That caller said he would be coming to the company hostel. On arrival, the man talked about how there was no one at the hostel to look after injured Nagesh, while emphasising the risk that the employer could send him to the airport for repatriation.

The man than produced a blank form for Nagesh to sign, explaining that it was to formalise legal representation by the firm. Initially, Nagesh was hesitant to sign the form as there were blank spaces on the form, and anyway he didn’t understand what the printed words said.

The man assured Nagesh that once he signed the form, Labagaye would be able to protect him from repatriation. Nagesh eventually signed it.

Alternative accommodation was immediately arranged. Nagesh packed his things and moved to Labagaye’s accommodation downtown — let’s call this “Room Alpha”.

Not long after moving into Room Alpha, Nagesh met another injured worked Suresh (not his real name) who was also staying there and who expressed some unhappiness over the lack of medical care. According to Nagesh’s account of what Suresh told him, Suresh was getting renewed and extended medical leave, but not any treatment. There was also something about Labagaye “not handling” Suresh’s case. Labagaye had been Suresh’s legal representative for five months.

At some point, Suresh decided that he didn’t want to wait out MOM’s injury compensation process; he wanted to go home. Through a legal representative of the firm, Suresh was promised (or at least so he thought) an air-ticket and some money to go home with. By Nagesh’s telling, the air-ticket was bought by the law firm.

(Comment by TWC2: This is most unlikely, since it would almost always be the employer, under MOM rules, who would be providing the air-ticket. How did Nagesh and Suresh come to believe it was bought by the law firm?)

As it turned out, there was no money forthcoming on departure day. Nagesh recounts this as an instance of Labagaye breaking a promise.

(Comment by TWC2: Why Suresh and Nagesh believed that Labagaye would give money to Suresh is difficult to explain. It raises questions about the transparency of the communication between Labagaye and its clients.)

Limiting communication and endangering health

Early on in his engagement with the law firm, Nagesh was brought to Labagaye’s office where an incident report was completed and filed electronically with MOM.

The law firm moved Nagesh out of Room Alpha soon after to another downtown location we’ll call “Room Beta”. At around this point, Nagesh met Anand (not his real name), the Operations Manager of Labagaye. Anand would figure repeatedly in the rest of the story as someone with considerable authority.

Nagesh asked Anand why he was required to stay at Room Beta. Anand said it was to cut off communication between him and his former employer, to prevent any possibility of premature repatriation. Anand added that staying at accommodation directed by Labagaye was a condition of Labagaye taking on his case.

He was also instructed to switch off his phone. He was coached to lie to MOM, if MOM should ask why he couldn’t be contacted, that value on his SIM card had been exhausted and that he had no money to top up.

Nagesh reported terrible conditions at Room Beta. There were about 40 men packed into a few rooms. Basic amenities such as soap were not provided. Bed bugs were everywhere and Nagesh soon developed a rash.

Limiting freedom

The workers were housed on different floors depending on the severity of their injury. Those with serious injuries and mobility issues were kept on the lower floor. There were look-outs posted to ensure that workers did not “attempt to escape” — in Nagesh’s words.

Not long after, the place was raided by the authorities. Exactly what the complaint was, Nagesh did not know though unhealthy conditions and overcrowding could have been it. The clients of Labagaye were then moved to a third location, we’ll call “Room Gamma”.

Nagesh reported being closely watched at all times. Nagesh himself was asked to snitch on two other clients staying at Room Gamma. Anand instructed Nagesh to report to him (Anand) any observation regarding these two men’s whereabouts and their spending.

For every trip to MOM for his hearings, Nagesh was always escorted by someone from Labagaye.

Draining the purse

During his stay, Nagesh asked one of the staff members running the hostel where he was staying (Room Gamma) about the cost of food and accommodation. This was an employee of the hostel, not of Labagaye.  Nagesh learned that meals were $120 per month, and the bed $230 per month.

Nagesh tells TWC2 that Labagaye had told him differently — that food was $150 per month and the bed between $280 and $300. On top of all of that, the law firm levied an additional 20% commission.

Nagesh understood that these costs would be deducted from whatever compensation he would eventually get, as were other costs such as taxi fares (for going to MOM, to Labagaye’s office, and hospital), cash advances, and so on.

(Comment by TWC2: Expenditure decisions, e.g. where to stay and whether to a taxi, were not Nagesh’s to make, but were for him to pay. That and the 20% commission would seriously degrade whatever compensation Nagesh would finally receive.)

Through the month and a half that Nagesh was with Labagaye, he estimated that he took taxis about 25 times — approximately two or three times a week, to and fro. Nagesh’s description of a typical visit to the Labagaye office would be that, on arrival, he’d see at least 20 workers sitting on the floor waiting for their cases to be handled.  Often, he himself waited until 4pm at the office and no one would call him to discuss his case.

While at the office, he saw the head of the firm (the practising lawyer) walk by, but at no time did the lawyer speak to him. Nagesh now describes all these visits as a waste of time and an unnecessary financial cost.

Labagaye escorts for Nagesh’s visits to hospital and MOM expected to be tipped handsomely. On one occasion, after Nagesh failed to tip the escort for a hospital visit, Nagesh was summoned to the Labagaye office, where the custom was made clear to him and a sum of $20 for the escort demanded from him. 

Instilling fear

For visits to MOM, Nagesh and other clients of Labagaye were instructed to tell MOM personnel that the escort was a relative. This was underlined by a threat that if Nagesh revealed to an MOM officer that the escort was not a relative, the firm Labagaye would ask MOM to repatriate him.

Fortunately, at no time did officials at MOM ask Nagesh who the escort was. MOM had a practice of discussing his case with him in a private room without the escort going in. 

Anand often spoke to other workers in a bullying and intimidating manner, observed Nagesh.

Eventually, Nagesh decided to leave this stressful, over-controlled and likely to be financially ruinous environment. When word of this decision reached the ears of two other assistants of Anand, they tried to dissuade him. They said to Nagesh that Labagaye had already paid one month’s worth of rent in advance with the implication that they would claw this sum back from him; that MOM would not assist him with his case; and that he would be forcibly repatriated — not clear by whom — if he left the law firm. One of them added that it would be impossible for Nagesh to get any injury compensation without the help of Labagaye.

Keeping Nagesh’s passport

Quite early in their relationship, Nagesh’s passport was handed over to Labagaye. It was not clear to Nagesh how arrangements were made, but one day at MOM, his former employer returned the passport to him. The MOM officer present asked Nagesh to sign a form, but unsure what the form was about, and having been instructed by Labagaye not to sign any MOM form, Nagesh refused to sign it. Nevertheless, the passport was still handed to him, and Nagesh passed it to the Labagaye escort a short while later when outside MOM.

While in the room, the MOM officer asked Nagesh why he chose to engage a law firm when he could have reported his injury problem to MOM directly. It’s not clear what reply Nagesh gave the officer, perhaps none. The officer also asked Nagesh whether he would be staying with his former employer or with Labagaye. Nagesh replied he would be with Labagaye.

(Comment by TWC2: This indicates that the option to continue staying in the employer’s dorm was always there, and that MOM would take an interest in Nagesh’s security while he stayed there, contrary to the initial advice given to Nagesh by Labagaye’s men when inducing him to move over the Labagaye’s accommodation.)

After discharging Labagaye, Nagesh did not get his passport back. Nagesh tells TWC2 that he did make an attempt to ask for its return but was unsuccessful — apparently this was before discharging the law firm. Instead, the law firm’s representatives emphasised that MOM would take the side of his former employer and assured him his passport was in good hands.

After discharging the law firm, Nagesh did not have the courage to approach Labagaye to insist on the return of his passport. He tells TWC2 that he feared being beaten up or held against his will by the firm’s enforcers.

Harassing the family

Someone claiming to represent the firm phoned Nagesh’s wife in India. This occurred after Nagesh discharged the law firm and left Room Gamma. The caller asked her if she knew Nagesh’s whereabouts in Singapore and tried to obtain further personal details about him, such as Nagesh’s new contact number, and the family’s address in India. Sensing that the caller wanted to track Nagesh down, the wife did not reveal these details. 

There was a subsequent call with similar intent and questions, but the second call originated from a location in India itself.

(Comment by TWC2: The way to read the second call is this — “We are here in India too, closer to you than you’d be comfortable with.”)

The second story is shorter than the first, but it parallels’ Nagesh’s story in many ways. 

Raju’s story

Raju (not his real name) also had a lower limb injury like Nagesh, but he was treated at a different hospital, a public hospital. He underwent surgery there for his injury. While at the hospital, he got to know a man whom he later learned was an assistant or associate of Anand, the Operations Manager of law firm Labagaye.

This man advised Raju to take his case to Labagaye and assured him that the head lawyer of the firm would be able to get him more than $16,000 in workplace injury compensation.

(Comment by TWC2: It is unclear how at this early stage, anyone can assess the future permanent disability and predict the compensation amount.)

Raju visited the Labagaye’s office subsequently, where all his particulars including his address in India and his wife’s contact details were collected. He was housed, along with other workers with injury-related claims, in an accommodation organised by the Labagaye. We’ll call this hostel “Room Delta”.  From the location Raju provided to TWC2, Room Delta was not the same as any of the hostels that Nagesh stayed in.

Raju reported that workers paid $250 per month for rent and $150 per month for food consisting of rice and a small quantity of vegetables twice daily. Both monthly payments were paid to Anand.

At no time through his engagement with the law firm did Raju meet the head and practising lawyer  of the firm to discuss his case. Raju only dealt with Anand, clerks and assistants. At no time were the costs and structure of his legal fees explained to him.

Raju’s health started deteriorating due to his untreated diabetes during the one and a half months he stayed at Room Delta (in the third quarter of 2017). Then one day, he got a chance to meet the practising lawyer, but only because the lawyer wanted to tell him that he (the lawyer) was discharging him as client. (Reason given in final paragraph.)

Raju’s observations and inferences

The workers living in the accommodation were subjected to constant verbal abuse and even sporadic physical abuse by Operations Manager Anand and a few of his assistants. Their movements were severely restricted; Raju was only able to leave the accommodation once over the entire duration of his stay there. This was because Anand or his associates stood by the entrance of the accommodation, and spoke to them abusively when they desired to leave.

Raju learned that Anand or his associates had also called the family members of workers who had fled the accommodation, to threaten them and demand money from them.

The workers did not have any access to the practising lawyer, with the sole exception of seeing him  during their scheduled meetings with MOM (if any). They had no one-on-one time with the lawyer when they could explain their grievances and wishes save for a few minimal questions that the lawyer asked them.

Anand communicated to the workers at the accommodation that the firm Labagaye would provide loans to those workers whose cases were expected to have successful outcomes. According to Raju’s recollection of what Anand said, the principal amount of these loans would be deducted, with interest, from the final compensation awarded to the worker upon conclusion of the case. The interest rate was not specified.

(Comment by TWC2: While there was the implication that the loans were from Labagaye, it didn’t actually need to be. There could be an intermediary party involved, such as Anand and his assistants.)

Further, each worker paid a commission of at least 25% of the loan amount to Anand and a certain Rahendran (not his real name), who was the personal assistant to the head lawyer. How it worked was like this: If the principal amount of a loan was $1,000, the worker would get $750 while a $250 commission would be shared between Anand and Rahendran,. Interest, however, would be accrued for the entire $1,000.

As for fees to the law firm, no details were provided, but the workers were generally under the impression that the fees would be a percentage of their final compensation award. Again, this percentage was unspecified.

Raju believes he was asked to sign the discharge form for the law firm because of his poor health, as Anand was worried that Raju might die while staying at their accommodation and thought of him as a liability because of this.

 

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.

Make a difference

help with your donation become a volunteer