By TWC2 volunteer Frank, based on an interview in August 2019
I don’t know if the world needs another useless lawyer story, but here’s one anyway.
Anwar broke his left ankle in an accident at his worksite on 9 January, 2019. He was taken to Ng Teng Fong Hospital for treatment, which he rightfully expected his company to finance, but to date, it has not.
“Hospital call me to say company no pay money, I say , ‘OK, I can [call] to company’. Company say will pay, but company never pay.”
In addition to owing the hospital, the company owes Anwar some eight months’ worth of medical leave wages (“MC money”), which he estimated to have accumulated to a total of $5,000 – $6,000.
As early as end February, Anwar was anxious over money. He needed the medical expenses paid so that the hospital would stop calling, and he needed the MC money to send home to his parents and wife in Bangladesh, who depend on him for support. A fellow worker in a similar situation (broken leg, unpaid medical expenses) suggested he hire a lawyer. It sounded like a reasonable course of action, so Anwar engaged the same lawyer as his fellow.
By now, Anwar estimates that he has been to the lawyer’s office at least 20 times. He has only ever met the lawyer’s assistant, never the man himself. Every meeting began and ended with the assistant telling Anwar to go to MOM to press for his MC wages. So, Anwar goes to MOM. MOM tells him to go to his lawyer. So, he goes to his lawyer. His lawyer’s assistant tells him…and so on.
Says Alex, a senior volunteer at TWC2, “MOM’s position is completely understandable. The law firm represents Anwar, and on the matter of chasing the employer for payment of MC wages, the law firm should be taking it up directly with the employer. They should even be able to threaten legal action should this become necessary.”
MOM would not speak with Anwar without his lawyer present. “Lawyer say go MOM, MOM say you have lawyer,” recalls Anwar of the impasse.
The friend who referred Anwar to the lawyer has since returned home empty-handed, Anwar believes. The lawyer was no help to him either.
Then Anwar’s situation took a turn for the worse. “Father in hospital. Has heart problem. Need MC money so my father can treatment.”
Explains Alex: “The law says that medical leave wages should be paid no less frequently than the usual monthly pay day. The intent of such a rule is abundantly clear — it is to ensure that workers are not left without an income stream to support themselves and their families.”
For unknown reasons, says Alex, a practice has developed among injury lawyers (or more accurately, injury legal assistants who work virtually independently of the supposedly-supervising lawyers) to prefer that MC money not be pursued monthly but instead accumulated till the end of the main claim for disability compensation. Then after the disability compensation is paid out, the legal assistant gets to work to calculate the total amount of MC wages and medical expenses.
“We don’t really know how and why this practice developed,” says Alex. “But we can make two guesses.”
The first possibility is that pursuing MC money monthly is too much work for the legal assistant. He’d rather do it as one lump sum just once, than to work to help his client every month. It’s also easier to take a commission from the lump sum. If the legal assistant were to do it monthly and take his commission each month, the client would realise quite early in the relationship that he was losing out. The client might be motivated to discharge his lawyer, who might then lose his chance of taking a 10 – 20% commission on the disability compensation — a much bigger payout.
The second possibility displays a diametrically opposite intention — not to fleece the client but to help him. By not pursuing MC money monthly but only doing so after the main disability compensation has been paid out, the legal assistant can help his client prolong his stay in Singapore — on the basis that the MC money part has still to be resolved. By this point, most clients would have recovered rather well, and would be working illegally in underground jobs that pay far above the rates legal jobs pay. In prolonging the worker’s stay, the legal assistant helps his client work lucratively for one or two months more.
(We’re not saying that Anwar has an underground job; in fact his desperation over finances suggests that he does not).
Adds Alex: “Of course, both reasons can operate in parallel. The legal assistant can tell his client he’s doing it to help him while the assistant is personally gleeful that this method of not claiming MC money monthly reduces his own workload.”
We suggest to Anwar that he consider discharging his lawyer if he wants some immediate action over the MC wages. This will allow him to speak to MOM directly for help.
Anwar did not immediately act on our advice. However, about a month after the above interview, he approached TWC2 again to ask for help in discharging his lawyer. By then we could see that his case was closing. The Ministry of Manpower had already proposed a compensation amount for residual permanent disability, and the proposal was on the cusp of being accepted by all parties.
We advised Anwar that it would be pointless to discharge his lawyer by that point. The legal assistant would be commencing work on calculating the medical wages owed, late though it might be. There was nothing that TWC2 could do that the legal assistant was not already doing.
But why did Anwar decide to discharge his lawyer only then? We don’t really know. Might it be because he finally saw the amount of compensation being proposed and realised how much he’d have to pay the legal assistant for commission?