By Chow Zhi Ying

Safiulla told the law firm that he wanted to discharge them from representing him. He was shocked to be told in return that he had to pay $1,000 before they would issue a discharge letter. Not having this kind of money, he is now stuck.

But why did he need to get a discharge letter?

The date was 19 February 2012, a Sunday night. It was yet another day of tough laboring at a construction site for Safiulla Ali Hossin, 25, and his friends. Seated at the back of his employer’s lorry with five other workers on their way back to their living quarters, he looked forward to a good night’s sleep.

The quiet of 10:30pm was deafeningly ripped when an overtaking van collided into the back of their lorry along Woodlands Avenue 12. The lorry overturned several times, according to Safiulla, and the last thing he could remember was the siren of an ambulance. He soon lost consciousness and was taken to Khoo Teck Puat Hospital.

The other passengers also suffered similar injuries; one of them, Ibrahim Haladar, 21, perished in the accident. (See the news story on Asia One.)

Safiulla awoke to indescribable pain with multiple fractures, including a broken left arm and fractured right leg. He was practically immobile for the next few days. But his nightmare was only just beginning.

Although discharged after only eight days in the hospital, he was put under medical leave (“MC”) for more than half a year. For some three months, he had to rely on a wheelchair and subsequently crutches while staying in the company dormitory. This lack of mobility would prove a serious disadvantage. He was out of reach of TWC2’s help. He didn’t know about the organisation and the organisation didn’t know about him.

By his reports, he seems to have been shortchanged in terms of “MC pay”, telling TWC2 that his employer only gave him $300 a month. From this, $150 was deducted as ‘makan money’, i.e. food expenses. Is $300 the correct rate?  It doesn’t appear so. Before the accident, Safiulla was grossing $750 a month; his basic pay was $468 a month ($18/day x 26 days) with about $280 more in overtime. Under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA), he should be entitled to two-thirds of “average monthly earnings” for up to one year after the accident if doctors certified him to remain on medical leave. This indicates that he should have been getting about $500 a month in “MC pay” rather than the $300 that Safiulla was reporting.

While it was good that the employer continued to provide accommodation, Safiulla found it difficult to stay on. He said his foreman badmouthed him constantly. Soon after he was able to walk again without crutches, he decided to move out of the dormitory, unable to bear the emotional distress any longer even though he was jobless and penniless. He found a room at Rangoon road, but this is costing him $220 a month, an amount he borrows from a friend.

His biggest problem now, however, is the mess he might have made with his injury compensation claim. As told by Safiulla, shortly after the accident his superior brought him to the company lawyer, demanding that he sign a document. Clueless to what it was, he was initially hesitant. But after much persuasion, followed by murmurs that his treatment would be withheld until he signed it, he put his name down. He now believes it was an agreement engaging the lawyer, and consenting to participate in a common law suit against the owner and driver of the other vehicle.

It appears however that Safiulla has lost faith in that process. His moving out of the dormitory also suggests a breakdown in his relations with his employer, which might complicate his participation in the joint suit.

Indeed, filing a claim under WICA is the better route. “WICA is a no fault regime,” explains Alex Au, treasurer of TWC2. “Since Safiulla was hurt while travelling from work in a company vehicle, it would come under the scope of WICA, and he should be entitled to compensation from his own employer’s insurer. It is then up to his employer’s insurer to sue the other vehicle’s owner to obtain reimbursement.

“Safiulla should not need to sue the other vehicle’s owner himself. In fact, if he did so, then as per MOM’s policy, he would be considered to have waived his rights under the WICA process. This may benefit his employer and his employer’s insurer, since they won’t have to pay out, but I can’t see how it is optimal for him.”

It looks as if MOM came to the same conclusion. Safiulla told TWC2 that his MOM case officer advised him to discharge the lawyer that filed the suit. Although he couldn’t explain why — though he might have known why, except that he didn’t have the English vocabulary for it — the advice is consistent with the ministry’s policy that an employee who has been injured in a workplace accident may either file a claim for compensation under WICA or sue his employer (or other negligent party) in the civil courts for damages, but not both. Thus, in order to pursue his compensation claim under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA), Safiulla would first have to withdraw from that civil suit against the other vehicle.

But now the lawyer is demanding $1,000, money he doesn’t have. Unable to obtain a discharge letter, Safiulla is left unsure where he stands and what his chances of obtaining compensation are.

UPDATE 18 July 2013: Safiulla reports to TWC2 that he has been given 10 points (out of 100) for permanent incapacity, and offered compensation of about $11,000. His leg has healed reasonably well and his walking looks quite normal to the eye. However, he is unable to run, he said. His left arm remains weak and he cannot carry anything heavy. The steel implant is still inside. Safiulla is considering whether to accept the offered compensation or choose other options.