Through a Tamil interpreter, Pragash told TWC2 that his employer asked him to sign two letters, both written in English. He had no idea what was said on them, nor was he given a copy. He signed.

Why?!#!  asked your friendly TWC2 volunteer.

Because in similar situations previously, he explained, workers who didn’t sign when so asked were taken away by ‘gangsters’. The term ‘gangsters’ is commonly used by foreign workers to refer to repatriation agents who use intimidatory and strong-arm tactics to haul workers off to the airport.

“You should go to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) first thing tomorrow morning and tell them about these letters, and that you had been made to sign them under duress,” TWC2 advised him. “Otherwise they may be used against you.”

A large steel piece had crushed the welder’s little finger on 30 July 2012. It weighed 1.5 tons, he said.

He was taken to Westpoint Hospital in Taman Jurong where an X-ray showed that the bone in the finger had been badly broken. A steel splint was put in and he was warded for two nights — or so went the plan. However, after staying only one night, the employer insisted on discharging him. He was then given a medical certificate for sick leave (“MC”) for two more days.

Why did they do that? asked TWC2.

Pragash said the company didn’t want him to stay in hospital for two or three days. This might have something to do with a rule (see this page on MOM’s website) that requires worksite accidents to be formally reported to the authorities if an employee was injured in accident and

  • Died, or
  • Hospitalised for more than 24 hours; or
  • Given MC for more than 3 calendar days in a row

TWC2 has heard many similar stories from other workers — of employers doing everything possible to avoid having to report worksite accidents, lest they be investigated for safety breaches.

Pragash was sent back to his dorm, but was expected to report for work the third day after the accident. He didn’t, and the company let it be for a few days.

At the follow-up appointment with the hospital about a week later, he was told that there would be another operation after five weeks in order to remove the splint. He was also given a further seven days’ MC. Oops, that made it a reportable incident.

Soon after, staffers from the company came to ask him to turn in his Work Permit. He refused, and that was when two letters were presented to him, demanding his signature. As noted above, he complied.

Pragash then fled the dorm, afraid that ‘gangsters’ would come looking for him before long.

When he showed up at TWC2 a few more days later, it was apparent that he was quite lost in an information vacuum. He had no idea about what would happen to him next or what he could do. He wasn’t even intending to go for further treatment at Westpoint Hospital because, as he said through the interpreter, he was fearful that ‘gangsters’ would be lying in wait for him there. He hadn’t even conceived of stepping into MOM to make a report. He didn’t know there were interpreters at MOM. One could also guess that he might have heard terrible stories of rude and unhelpful staff at the ministry, so common are these reports.

(TWC2’s own staffers have witnessed MOM counter staff shouting at migrant workers.)

However, he had already run to and signed up with a lawyer — a move that, in TWC2’s experience, was quite unnecessary especially in relatively straightforward cases like his, and could possibly prove to be more impediment than help,

Your TWC2 volunteer sketched out to Pragash some simple realities:

  • An injury like his is considered relatively small; even if permanent disability in that little finger results, the Work Injury Compensation he will get for it will not amount to much. It could even be as little as $1,000 to $2,000.
  • But he has now committed to paying for a lawyer, and having run away from the dorm, has to pay for his own accommodation.
  • After paying for all that, how much compensation money would he have left to keep?
  • Lawyers typically take a percentage of whatever compensation pay-out their clients get. In this case, ten percent of $1,000 – $2,000 will mean very little money for the lawyer (though we don’t know exactly what rate has been agreed between Pragash and his lawyer in this case). Given the smallness of the fee, how much attention is this worker going to get from his lawyer in pushing his case?

TWC2 even asked him: “Look at us, we’ve spent half an hour taking the facts of your story and explaining things to you. Has your lawyer spent half an hour with you likewise? And you’re going to pay him when we do this for free?”

Pragash looked stunned. He didn’t really answer but his face indicated that he got the point we were trying to put across.

But it is not TWC2 practice to leave a worker bewildered. So we spent five more minutes informing him what he could do to help himself:

  • Go to MOM and check whether his Work Permit has been cancelled; if so, obtain a Special Pass so that he continues to be legal in Singapore;
  • At MOM, make an accident and injury report; also tell them about the letters signed under duress.
  • As for treatment, continue the visits to Westpoint Hospital; if he discontinues treatment there and runs to another hospital, the employer may refuse to pay the other hospital, and then he’ll be saddled with his own medical expenses. If he’s afraid of ‘gangsters’ lying in wait, ask a friend to go along with him.
  • Do not be afraid of ‘gangsters’. TWC2 explained how he can get out of their clutches even if they seize him and frogmarch him to the airport.
  • There is not going to be much money from compensation, so whatever he chooses to do he should bear this in mind.

But the larger questions that Pragash’s case raise are these:

1.  Why is the fear of ‘gangsters’ so widespread that employees are easily intimidated?  Why are MOM and the police perceived to be doing little to combat this scourge?

2. Why are workers so quick to turn to lawyers when the process of work injury compensation seldom requires their services? How do they find one so quickly? Or do lawyers find them?

See related article: Is MOM outsourcing its work?