By Rachel Hui

Three months after a lorry collision (see story on AsiaOne) that left twenty-five foreign workers injured and one dead, Pandian, 34, the driver of one of the lorries, still cannot walk without his crutches. His hip and upper legs had been trapped inside the vehicle. “Fifty stitch,” he says, pointing to the long laceration he suffered. His co-worker Rama, 22, looks on disapprovingly. He doesn’t seem to trust the medical treatment he and the other men are getting from hospital doctors here. Their inability to communicate their concerns to their doctors and the lack of empathy they perceive contributes to a palpable sense of frustration Visibly upset, he points to his wrist, which he still cannot flex. “Doctor here say cannot bend,” he says, “but go home to India, this one doctor can fix!”

This is a story about trust. Pandian and three of his co-workers are among fifteen or so men who were seriously injuried in the widely reported accident in July. They are no longer working for the company that employed them –Beng Khim Construction, the company that employed them. Among the four still remaining in Singapore, one suffered a serious wrist injury, another underwent a liver operation due to internal bleeding, and two had fractured ribs. All also suffered various injuries to the head, arms and shoulders. They explain through a Tamil translator that they left their company quarters one and a half months ago.

No money

According to the men, they were told they would receive their full salary in the first month after the accident, half of it in the second month, and a quarter in the third month. This does not appear to accord with the law. Under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA), workers should receive full pay for up to 60 days of hospitalisation; and two-thirds of their average monthly earnings for each subsequent month up to a year after the accident. This is provided that the workers are still certified as under medical leave, which the four men interviewed are.

Not only is the promised salary at variance with the law, none of them had actually received any money since the accident more than three months ago. Your writer discovered that they had been led to believe, ever since they started working, that long delays in salary payments are the norm in Singapore, especially in the construction industry. Even when they were working, they were only paid around the tenth day of the third month after the salary month — a delay that is also against the law, in this case, the Employment Act. Yet the men seemed accepting and nonchalant about failing to receive punctual monthly payments. “This has always been the payment arrangement, even for friends who referred this job to them, so why would they question or try to change it?” explains Sam, our Tamil translator.

However, the company paid fully for their medical treatment.

To the lawyer they go

Trust in the advice of their social network in Singapore may also have led the men into the complicated legal situation they are currently in now. While they were in hospital, their company’s lawyer asked them to sign on as claimants in a lawsuit against the other company, whose vehicle was accused to be responsible for the accident and therefore damages. The men were told they could not return home until the case was resolved.

Injured, homesick and broke, five of their seriously injured co-workers were unhappy and went home anyway. One man left even before he had his wages paid. Shortly after their departure, several other men with serious injuries decided to sign up with a different lawyer, a Tamil-speaking one, who informed the company that these men were now his clients.

With the most seriously injured men and biggest claimants withdrawing from the joint suit, the company decided to drop their original suit against the other company, the interviewees tell us.

Left stranded without representation and worried they would not receive any compensation, Pandian and the others jumped on the bandwagon with the Tamil lawyer.  “This man Tamil, so we trust”, said Pandian. But asked if they had any documents with the details of their case, nobody had any to produce – each of them were only given their lawyer’s business card and case file number. Did they even know whom they were suing? Their employer or the other company? He wasn’t certain, Pandian said, but his best guess was that it was against the other company.

In limbo

Having left the employ of their company and gotten a lawyer on their own, the men think their outstanding wages may not be paid. Except for Pandian, who believes that as a “senior” employee with the company for four years, his loyalty should count for something. Asked what they had been surviving on in the last one and half months, “we borrow money,” said Alagansamy, “no money left.”

Unable to walk, Pandian’s financial situation is even more dire as he has to rely on taxis to get to the hospital. He has up to three appointments at Changi Hospital each week, a return trip that costs him about $30 dollars each time, or close to $400 a month. This expense is on top of the hefty $330 a month that he pays in rent, for a bunk bed in a small windowless room.

There is a crucial, missing element to their story: The lorry the men had been in was a company vehicle. And they were on their way to work. By all accounts, the men should be entitled to the process set out by WICA that will lead to compensation for any permanent incapacity as a result of the accident. This is a straightforward process that does not require legal representation. Given the severity of their injuries, they would probably have qualified for compensation.

However, all four men interviewed had no clue what WICA and its process was. A query about WICA compensation only draws a blank from Pandian and his co-workers. It seemed that their lawyer had not briefed them on this optional route. Nor could the men provide any information as to how much their lawyer would be charging them.

But even if they had been aware of WICA and a high likelihood of being awarded a  payout, would they be prepared to stay in Singapore for the duration of the process? It could take months, even more than a year in some cases. How would they support themselves during this time? None of the men are literate in English, so it seemed natural they would leave their case in the care of a lawyer, a fellow Tamil who came recommended by their peers. It was easier to trust him to navigate the intricacies of law and bureaucracy in Singapore, a foreign system they have only a limited understanding of, than to rely on themselves. After a traumatising accident, this would seem the best option out of more trouble, a surer way to peace of mind.

In any case, getting home and getting better as soon as possible is Pandian’s first priority. With the help of traditional Indian medicine and more importantly, doctors who speak his language, he feels he has a better chance there. The lorry accident is not the only tragedy that has befallen him. Not long ago, he received the news that his wife died from a snakebite back at home in India. Now, he is just anxious to see his son.

The interview in Tamil was conducted with the kind assistance of Sam Johnraj.