By Xinlin

Transient Workers Count Too sees many cases where an employer might consider early repatriation of a worker to be the best solution to avoid further costs, especially work injury compensation. This is particularly if the employer has failed to take up insurance, even though under Section 23 of the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA), taking out insurance is a legal obligation.

The case of Abdus Salam is one such example. On 19 May 2011, nearly 14 months ago, the worker was carrying materials for building new HDB lifts down three flights of stairs when he sustained an injury to his back.

“Back hurt,” Abdus Salam recounted. “I told supervisor, then he bring me to boss. Boss give me Panadol and say, ‘You sleep’.”

However, sleep was not helpful, and Abdus Salam woke up to a throbbing pain the next morning. It was decided that he should see a general practitioner at a small clinic who prescribed the worker some medicine and gave him three days of sick leave.

After the three days’ MC (sick leave) expired, Abdus Salam was given light work such as sweeping the floor. However, he saw no improvement and even simple tasks such as this proved difficult.

The weight Abdus Salam been carrying on the day of the injury was 40kg. According to safety guidelines given to workers when they attend a safety course conducted by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), the maximum weight that an adult male human body can handle is 25kg.

“Why you never follow MOM rules?” TWC2 treasurer Alex Au probed.

At this, Abdus Salam gave a sheepish smile and shrugged his shoulder. He had nothing to say. Although he knew about the rule,  it was clearly not something that was regularly followed at the worksite.

“Many foremen make it impossible for workers to refuse to carry excessive loads,” explained Alex. “While we don’t know exactly what happened in his case, we regularly hear from other workers that their foremen threaten them by saying that unless they do as told, they will be denied overtime, or will not be assigned any work for the next few days, and thus not be paid.

“Foremen consider any reluctance to comply, however dangerous the job, as a form of insubordination, and sometimes tell the workers that they will be terminated forthwith and repatriated. Naturally, no worker is prepared to lose his job, so he ends up doing as demanded and next thing we know, he throws his back.”

Abdus Salam then went to Changi Hospital, where an appointment was arranged for him to see a specialist 25 days later. He still went to the general practitioner, and between that and the the hospital, he got 25 days of certified sick leave.

The boss however, was losing patience.

“Boss say, ‘You must work, if not, go back Bangladesh’,” Abdus Salam said. “So I scared, I don’t want [to] go back because no more money.”

Despite much pleading, the manager in the office, to whom the matter was now referred, was adamant. “Manager say cannot, must go back Bangladesh.”

“But I tell manager: I don’t want go back Bangladesh. My family is poor, need to eat, I send money back [to support]. Manager say, ‘You go back Bangladesh and see doctor. We give you salary, just go back.'”

Losing the job was something Abdus Salam could not afford, and so that same evening, he, with the help of a friend, went to consult a lawyer. A work injury claim was then lodged with the Ministry of Manpower — though workers do not need a lawyer to do this; they can lodge such claims directly themselves.

Abdus Salam’s case illustrates a situation where an employer was only willing to shoulder responsibility up to a certain point. Though initial medical expenses had been borne by the employer, once it was realised that the worker’s incapacity held long-term repercussions, termination was resorted to. However, since under WICA, the employer “is liable to pay the compensation . . .  even after the employment has ceased or the work pass (of a foreign worker) has been cancelled”, (taken from the MOM website), employers may be tempted to repatriate the worker before he has a chance to lodge a complaint. The recent article Seven to seven tells of one such case.

Fortunately for Abdus Salam, he initiated the claim process before it was too late. On 28 May 2012, about a year after the injury, he was awarded about S$14,000 as injury compensation. However, there now seems to be some complications about the pay-out and it is not fully resolved.

Nonetheless, Abdus Salam could be considered lucky. What about the workers who had been forcibly repatriated back to their hometowns, without getting the compensation needed? Saddled with possible permanent incapacity and deprived of both the ability to work and money to cover their future medical expenses, who should be held responsible for them?

Another question begets: Why was Abdus Salam carrying a 40kg weight that was 15kg over the safety limit? If the rule of 25kg had been stringently enforced, perhaps Abdus Salam might not have suffered the injury that would cause him so much trouble afterwards.

Though a well-intentioned system such as WICA exists, to fully protect the health and rights of workers in Singapore, there is a need for all-round enforcement — of work safety rules, and against premature or forced repatriation. Otherwise, the very people it intends to protect will keep falling through the gaps.