This is an uncommon story. It’s a story about a case in which Transient Workers Count Too decided we couldn’t help any further. Like any organisation, funds and volunteers’ time are limited, and if we are uncritical, expending resources on less deserving cases, then more deserving ones go unattended.

However, this side of our work needs to be told. TWC2 does not fall for every hard luck story that comes our way.

Fathur Uddin (not his real name) came to us several months back complaining of a workplace accident. Indeed an early report from the company doctor said “sand inside left eye during work”. His case then dragged on and on — it’s now been more than a year since the incident. In July 2011, TWC2 was shown a specialist report that said “he was found to have cataracts in both eyes… He will require cataract surgery to improve his vision.”

Since it looked to be a case of cataracts (cloudy vision from increasing opacity in the lens of the eye) rather than permanent impairment from an accident, TWC2 advised him that this was unlikely to be considered a workplace injury.

Then, in the fourth week of March 2012, he came to us again, this time with a letter from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) addressed to him via his lawyer. The letter said that at a recent Labour Court Conference, “the Assistant Commissioner (Work Injury Compensation) has directed you to submit yourself for medical examination of your permanent incapacity (if any). This is for the Ministry to determine the compensation payable if your claim is found valid.”

The letter also said that he would have to bear the costs of the medical assessment, though if the case is later found to be valid for compensation, the ministry would help him recover the cost from the employer.

Fathur Uddin’s English was virtually non-existent, so he couldn’t tell us what transpired at the Labour Court Conference, or the events leading up to it. What was unusual was that he was being told to get his own medical assessment report.

In most cases of workplace accidents, when a claim under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) is filed — usually quite early in the process — the post-treatment assessment of permanent incapacity is scheduled as a matter of course and the worker does not have to pay for it. So why was Fathur directed to get his own?

There are several possibilities. These include:

1. He did have a first assessment, but the report that came out assessed that his medical condition was not work-related. He and his lawyer could have contested it, in which case, it would be up to them to produce a second opinion.

2. His case had not earlier been lodged as a WICA case (for reasons unknown) but now he and lawyer are claiming that WICA compensation should kick in. The court would naturally ask that he substantiate the claim with a medical report at his own cost.

Fathur said to us, “I no money. Now must pay money for medical report.”

Should we help? TWC2 didn’t think so. Given the history, we thought his case was weak. Rather than linger in Singapore hoping for a payout under WICA, he might be better off going home as soon as possible, being useful helping out on the family farm and seeking treatment at a local clinic where doctors could explain to him in his own language what his eye problem was.

Yet he seemed impermeable to our advice, convinced instead that his former employer should pay for his eye condition. Where did he get this idea?

One possibility: his lawyer. Some lawyers who take up foreign worker cases operate on the basis of taking a percentage of whatever WICA compensation he wins for his client. If a worker’s claim is dismissed, then the lawyer gets nothing. Naturally, there may be a temptation to keep trying to get a WICA payout. The problem of course is that each attempt costs money, and if the client is not well-advised about the pros and cons of such attempts, he may end up saddled with more costs than justified by the chances of success.

We don’t know if this is the scenario behind Fathur’s case — he didn’t have the language capability to tell us. But the fact that the ministry’s letter was routed via his lawyer suggested to us that the legal strategy was something between him and the lawyer. And if this course of action requires paying for a medical report, then it should again be matter of Fathur working it out with his lawyer.

It is hard to say “no” when our mission is to help. But we are always mindful that saying “no” to a weak case enables us to say “yes” to a more needy one. So we had to say to Fathur: “Go talk to your lawyer again and discuss with him how to pay for the report. Perhaps the lawyer can pay for you.”