By TWC2 volunteer Randall G, based on an interview in July 2020
In modern Singapore, I find myself never not-knowing how to go about things. There may be specific uncertainties but, on the whole, processes and paths are straightforward — to me at least. Singapore is my society. I grew up accustomed to it, and as a citizen, I can influence its shape and tone, even if it’s just ever so slightly.
Khairul is not a Singapore citizen. He is from Bangladesh. Hearing his story, I see Singapore differently. It is a bewildering place for him, leaving him quite helpless.
On 7 September 2019, Khairul fell from a ladder of three metres while doing welding work at a shipyard. The hospital doctor said he had hurt his right knee, lower back, neck and left thumb. After being warded for three days, Khairul was discharged and he returned to his dormitory with a 34-day medical leave.
It is now July 2020. His medical leave wages for those 34 days have still not been paid.
Around October or November last year, he heard that the company was planning to send him back to Bangladesh. He also knew that the company had not informed the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) about the accident and his injury. The fear of returning home pushed him to look for help. After asking around, his friends gave him a lawyer’s name card. Khairul then went to see the same law firm and engaged their services.
But Khairul was not told how much the law firm would be charging for their services. Even now, Khairul does not know how much he is liable for.
Did he even need a lawyer in the first place? That too, Khairul doesn’t know.
Did he need a lawyer?
No, workers do not need legal representation when doing injury claims with MOM. The Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) sets out an administrative process, not a judicial one. On the ministry’s website, it even states, “You don’t have to engage a lawyer to file a WICA claim.”
To the question about how workers can notify MOM about an injury and commence a claim process, Debbie Fordyce, current president of TWC2 says:
If he wants to make a work injury claim, he could come to us at TWC2 and we would help him do that, or he can go directly to MOM and they would help him. And we wouldn’t charge, and MOM wouldn’t charge for this. It’s free.
My guess is that none of Khairul’s friends know this. The common understanding is that if you want to file a claim with the ministry, it is necessary to engage professional legal services.
Is the information for making injury claims made available online? Yes.
But do low-wage migrant workers even know where to look online for the information? Moreover, there’s a cultural filter to consider. Educated Singaporeans are trained to look for information online and to rely on the printed word. Brought up in a bureaucratic society, we rely more on the stated description of process than on hearsay.
Khairul and his cohort come from a different society, one where information is informal and the reliability of information is indexed to the trust and relationship you have with whoever is telling you what you want to know. Even when such an individual encounters the printed word, the absence of trust and relationship with the impersonal printed word means it is not taken on board the way a Singaporean would.
On the other hand, Khairul does not seem perturbed that he has not pinned down what the lawyer will be charging him. Between trust and an acute awareness of his social status, he does not think it’s his place to ask. This leaves him vulnerable to excessive billing.
Once transplanted from his society to ours, Khairul is like fish out of water.
The eleven months
Being out of employment since September 2019, he did not have any income to pay for food and accommodation. A cousin who also worked in Singapore gave him some money to get by. Khairul has shifted around three different rooms since the accident.
He laments the fact that he is cursed by bad luck. This is Khairul’s sixth year in Singapore and with his second employer. He recalls the first time he came to Singapore. His family had sold land, thinking it would be a good trade-off for a higher income here. For his second employment, he even left his then pregnant wife to come to Singapore.
As it turned out and in his words, “money is not very good.” His basic salary in his first job was a mere $16 daily despite having been promised much more.
Now, he is a father of an 18-month-old boy. He misses his family dearly but is unable to return home. His claim has stagnated, largely due to Covid-19.
Khairul looks me in the eye and says he “feel very bad” that he has had to resort to borrowing from his cousin and leaving it to his father-in-law to raise his son for him. But there is nothing he can do.
Will you do it all over again?
Yes. He clings to hope. The unfortunate experience so far, he says, could not have been expected. If given a chance to start all over, coming to Singapore is still a better gamble than staying home and facing certain unemployment.
The irony: being so vulnerable in this system yet knowing it is the best shot he has.