By Xinlin

On 7 August 2010, Shohidul Islam Late Abdul Jalil, then aged 31, fell about two metres from a ladder while doing work on an airconditioning duct. He was hospitalised at Changi General Hospital for – he thinks – seven days. But he remembers nothing of the first five days.

When his medical leave ended, he was given light duties, sweeping the floor and such like, and was paid, in his words, a “small salary”.

For six to seven months, he was accommodated in the company quarters in various parts of Singapore, but since early 2011, he had been without a job, on a Special Pass and paying for his own bedspace.

“More than one year, I pay for my house stay,” he said, referring to the amount of expenses he has racked up.

In accordance with the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA), Shohidul was assessed for permanent incapacity from his head injury. The result: none. No compensation payable.

He then borrowed money to pay for a second assessment. “This one, I money pay, $860 total,” he said. The second medical board determined that his injury had lasting effects rated at 30 points on a 100-point scale. This translated to a WICA compensation award of $39,764.40.

If only it were so easy. The problem was, the employer had no valid insurance for him under WICA. There was no insurer to pay him this amount. Technically, this should make no difference or the worker; the liability to pay remains with the employer.

The employer

For Mr Leo Kim Fah, paying the compensation for Shohidul’s head injury proved not only incredibly difficult, but became an added financial burden on a heap of misfortune.

I met Mr Leo that evening at Keypoint Shopping Centre. Dressed in a white collar t-shirt, he seemed subdued, resigned even. He led me into a coffee shop and placed an order for a cup of iced oolong tea. Then he began to tell me his story.

“At first, I did buy insurance [for Shohidul],” Mr Leo told me in fluent Mandarin, suffused with his native Malaysian accent, referring to the WICA insurance that employers were required by law to purchase for their workers. See this page on the Manpower ministry’s website.

Unknowingly Mr Leo had paid the premium twice for the same insurance, something that he did not realise until some time later.

“Why didn’t you know about it?” I asked him.

“I’m not very sure,” Mr Leo answered. “But when I found out about it I immediately requested [the insurance company] to cancel one. I sent in a form and faxed it over to them.”

His intention was to get a refund for the extra money he had mistakenly paid. However, because he did not know English, he now believed that he filled in a termination form by mistake. As a result, the insurance company assumed that he meant to cancel Shohidul’s insurance itself. The request was subsequently carried out.

Mr Leo did not find out about his mistake until one month later — when the accident took place. He called up the insurance company and was surprised to learn that Shohidul no longer had insurance to cover him. Further enquiry revealed that the original insurance had been cancelled one month earlier. It was then that he realised the mistake.

On top of this, he also discovered that neither of the sums of money previously paid for the premiums had been refunded to him. Instead, they had all been returned to his agent, and by then, his agent was not returning his calls.

Afterwards, Mr Leo contacted many people regarding the matter — government bodies, his own Member of the Parliament — but these efforts proved futile.

Because Shohidul no longer had insurance to compensate for his injury, it meant that the full amount of the compensation was entirely Mr Leo’s responsibility to shoulder. If his business was running smoothly, he would be able to pay back the amount in installments, over a period of time. Unfortunately for him, bad luck did not hit only once.

Two years after the accident, his business went through a series of losses, amounting up to some $350,000. Mr Leo claimed that he was “cheated” by another contractor. As a result, Mr Leo found himself in a severe financial crisis.

According to him, the subcontracting business was a “dangerous and uncertain” venture, and one “never know when [one] is going to make or lose money.”

When asked why he chose to work in the business then, Mr Leo replied, “We contractors don’t have high education, and so we do this job. When you are in the business every contractor is his own boss. I like the freedom to manage my own time.”

When one is so down in the trenches of bad luck, it was only to be assumed that compensating for a worker’s injury — something that many employers put to the back burner even when there was little crisis — would prove to be the last of his priorities. But Mr Leo did not choose the easy way out of dodging the issue and running away. Instead, he stayed and tried to work out a solution to the best of his ability. Because the original amount of $39,000 was now something that far exceeded his financial ability, he sought the help of TWC2, and over a period of two weeks, went into serious negotiations with Shohidul.

In the end, it was agreed with Shohidul that the amount would be reduced to $9,600, to be paid in installments over a period of two years.

The amount was much lower than the original sum of $39,000 and Mr Leo understood as much. When probed, he told me that Shohidul seemed visibly upset after the settlement, but there was little to be done.

“The bank had already declared me bankrupt after everything,” he said, “I find even the reduced amount [of $9,600] difficult to pay. But he” – referring to Shohidul – “has his reality. And I have my reality – what choice do I have?”

Signing day

Friday, 27 July 2012, Mr Leo came over with printed letters setting out the agreement between them for both sides and a witness to sign. He also had with him the first installment of the agreed amount.

Shohidul still looked glum. Mr Leo tried to assure him that his word could be trusted and that Shohidul would get his future installments. But it was obvious that Shohidul had plenty on his mind. How would he repay what he had borrowed to survive the last few months? What would the future hold for him and his family when he was back in Bangladesh?

“I don’t know what work I can do,” he said. “My head not same like before,” pointing to the huge scar on his right side.

L-R: Shohidul, Mr Leo and Suman (Shohidul’s friend)

In five or ten minutes, the signing was over. Mr Leo then gave Shohidul an airticket for his journey home, explaining carefully the time he must get to the airport. Then, as a token of his sincerity, he gave former employee a parting gift.

Still, not a smile crossed the worker’s face. Not a word of thanks.

A matter of honour

I asked Mr Leo why, like many employers before him, did he not choose to run away?

To this question Mr Leo’s laughter was strained. “If I wanted to escape I would have done so earlier,” he said. “However, the one who got injured is my worker. He’s also someone with family. Now that he’s injured, I must try my best to pay him back – even if it means borrowing money. ”

It was the mark of an honorable man. At the Cuff Road Project, TWC2 has seen many cases of injured workers who are deserted by their employers as soon as compensation or treatment proved too costly. Forced repatriation is often the quick and easy way out for these employers. Injured workers are thrust back to their hometown as soon as the matter escalates, with little respect or dignity.

It was quite heartening to see an employer treat the matter with humanity, despite his own set of personal crises. It serves as a reminder that though it may be easy to make blanket judgments on employers as a whole because black sheep among them are so visible, there were still many untold stories of kindness and empathy.

Through the conversation, when asked, Mr Leo expressed bewilderment at the fact that employers can choose to “run away”.

After all, he said, employers are required to purchase insurance for their workers. “So if they can use [the insurance] to pay [for the costs], why need to run away?”

As the interview drew to a close, Mr Leo revealed to me that he did not speak a word of English.

“I know my ABCs,” he said. “But when you put ABCs together into sentences I cannot read them at all. If I knew English well I wouldn’t have cancelled the insurance by mistake.” There was a tinge of resignation to fate in his voice.

Now, Mr Leo is working another job, a full-time one, in the subcontracting industry. This job has a fixed working schedule and does not give him much flexibility of time. He no longer owns a business himself nor employs any workers. He said that he was too old to change careers, and hence have stuck to the same industry. As I was about to leave, a question struck me.

“Do you prefer your old job or your new one?” I asked.

A wan smile crossed his face.

“Of course my old job,” he replied.