The most common question that people ask about the injured men who eat at The Cuff Road Project (TCRP) is whether they have lawyers to help with their case. Well, yes and no. Yes, they have lawyers, but no, the lawyers don’t necessarily help.

TWC2’s Cuff Road Project feeds South Asian migrants who are not permitted to work and not allowed to return home until their case is resolved. The majority of these men have been injured on the job and are undergoing medical treatment or awaiting compensation. It can take a long time to resolve their cases, sometimes more than two years.

The injured men start by making a claim for work injury compensation under MOM’s Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA), a process that should be simple and straightforward. Under WICA there’s no need to prove that the employer was at fault, the amount of compensation follows a fixed formula, and MOM can advise and help the injured employee to file the claim at no cost. The process does not require a lawyer, as clearly stated on the MOM website.

Alternatively, if the injured worker chooses to withdraw the claim from WICA and file it as a civil suit (often referred to as “claiming under common law”), he would need to prove that the employer or third party was at fault. He would need to engage a lawyer, but the advantage is that the compensation amount is not capped.

Of the 800 men with injury cases who have registered for meals at The Cuff Road Project in the first six months of this year, almost all have engaged lawyers, even though most will collect their compensation from WICA rather than make a civil claim.

Admittedly these tend to be men with serious injuries whose employers who are not willing to assist with their injury claims. It often happens that  employers become angry when the worker seeks legal assistance, but given the language and communication difficulties, it’s understandable that the injured worker might require help accessing treatment.

The difficulty in dealing with MOM to lodge a work injury claim, or to ensure treatment for the injury seems to be the main reason that men approach lawyers for help. When workers appear in person at MOM, they often face difficulties at the lobby. Men have reported that MOM counter personnel in the blue lobby have told them:

  • there’s nothing MOM can do
  • there’s no point in making a compensation claim because the employer has already arranged a plane ticket to send you home
  • your work permit has been cancelled; you must go home immediately or otherwise go to jail.

Typically, the men who come to TWC2 have the impression that MOM encourages injured workers to engage a lawyer to assist in the process of filing a claim. The law firm will then apply for injury compensation and advise MOM that they are acting for the worker. From that point, MOM deals with the legal representative rather than directly with the injured worker.

These are the responses TWC2 often receives from MOM when highlighting difficulties with payment for medical treatment, medical leave wages, and compensation:

  • We are liaising with the worker’s lawyer on his case. Please inform the worker to approach his lawyer for advice.
  • If the worker requires further assistance, he should approach his lawyer. Otherwise, he can approach his case officer or our colleagues at the Blue Lobby counters.

The law firms that deal with work injury cases employ Bengali assistants, some with legal training, to assist with their Bangladeshi clients. With the increasing number of cases they carry, we often hear from men who participate in The Cuff Road Project that the Bengali assistants are too busy to take calls or explain the status of the case to the worker, while MOM continues to refer the men back to their lawyer rather than speak directly to them.

Encouraging workers to retain lawyers for WICA claims introduces a commercial side into what is supposed to be a simple, straightforward, cost-free transaction with a government department. Compare this with buying an HDB flat: HDB will offer assistance with the application, eligibility and financing in order to reduce the need for property agents.

The involvement of lawyers prevents the MOM from having to deal with the men directly. Men with housing problems or problems with medical expenses are told by MOM counter staff to approach their lawyers for assistance. Men whose injury is contested by the employer as not arising out of and in the course of a workplace accident are told to confer with their lawyer. Men who can’t get their employer to provide payment for medical treatment or who don’t receive their full MC wages are told to seek the advice of their lawyers. Yet the lawyer may not act on these issues, either because it’s less lucrative than concentrating only on the compensation, or because they are overburdened with clients.

A worker on a Special Pass is assigned a MOM case officer, but that person is almost impossible to contact by phone or by message. In effect, the responsibilities of the MOM case officer are delegated to the worker’s legal representative.

MOM does promote the Work Injury Compensation claim as a simple and speedy way to resolve the problem; it might actually be if MOM provided better counter service to injured and distressed men with limited knowledge of English and a hazy understanding of the process. The workers most in need are those with uncooperative employers and with a variety of complaints. This should give the MOM, a government department whose mission is to assist migrant workers, more reason to extend their services and provide more understanding counter staff and more interpreters, rather than refer the foreign workers to the commercial and competitive market of law firms.