Workers put on Special Passes are not allowed to work; they receive stern warnings and punishment if caught doing so. Yet their employers are able to avoid paying medical leave wages and medical expenses, leaving the workers with no means of survival.

A fall at a Tampines construction site on 26 April 2012 left Ashraful with an injured back. Several of Ashraful’s workmates had been repatriated after being injured and he worried that the same might happen to him, so he engaged a lawyer to assist with a work injury compensation claim in early May. He was given 14 days medical leave by a polyclinic, and another 42 days by Alexandra Hospital. His employer attempted to convince him to continue working before the end of his medical leave, and this dispute drove him to move out of the company dormitory.

Ashraful’s story is typical of those of the men who eat at TWC2’s Cuff Road Project. The great majority are injured workers who, due to some dispute or difficulty with the employer, are compelled or forced to leave the company accommodations.

Work Pass regulations state:

16. The employer shall continue to be responsible for and bear the costs of the upkeep (including the provision of food and medical treatment) and maintenance of the foreign employee in Singapore who is awaiting resolution and payment of any statutory claims for salary arrears under the Employment Act, or work injury compensation under the Work Injury Compensation Act. The responsibility shall cease upon resolution and payment of the statutory claim or work injury compensation.

Ashraful stayed with a friend in Little India for three months and then borrowed money from friends to pay $200/month for a place to sleep near Jalan Besar. He expected to recover that money from the medical leave wages that, under the law, his company owed him. He discussed this with his lawyer and appealed to the employer several times, even sending the medical certificate (MC) slips by registered post two times. The company refused to pay not only the MC wages, but also the $900 that he had paid out of pocket for his medical expenses. In spite of the Work Injury Compensation Act requirement that medical leave wages be paid on a regular schedule (like salaries), it is common for employers to delay or refuse payment of MC wages.

Borrowing indefinitely from friends isn’t practical. So, many injured men take advantage of the small shops and restaurants in Little India for casual jobs, even though they may be aware that this is not permitted under the Special Pass conditions. In August, Ashraful found a night job in a small vegetable shop, expecting to earn $20/day.

Ashraful says, “I had no choice but to work. Otherwise how would I live? I need money for food, rent, and other things. We all take huge loans from banks to come here. Every month we have to send money home to pay off the loan. I’m the only breadwinner in the family. I support my wife and 7-year old son, and I also help out my brothers and sisters.”

The first day on the job Ashraful was caught and an investigation into the illegal employment was begun. What happened to the owner of the shop that employed him is not known. When investigations were completed, Ashraful was issued a stern warning and was required to leave Singapore on 21 November 2012.

As he was given only two days’ notice of his repatriation, Ashraful was unable to resolve his claims for medical leave wages and medical expenses. He had to leave this in the hands of his lawyer, even though the lawyer’s previous attempts had been unsuccessful.

Lawyers cannot compel employers to pay the amounts stipulated by the work pass and the work injury compensation act regulations, and employers understand this. They can refuse to heed lawyer’s letters requesting these amounts without consequence. Many employers declare that they will only pay when the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) insists that they pay, but MOM rarely follows up with assertive or punitive action.

There is a inherent bias that leads to injustice. While MOM insists that workers are not allowed to work while on Special Pass — and imposes punishments on such workers including warnings, fines, and imprisonment, which can result in repatriation before other claims are resolved, enforcement of regulations on the employers of injured workers on Special Pass is lacking. It causes great hardship for an injured worker to struggle without financial support to manage his own medical expenses, on top of the emotional tension resulting from his inability to provide for his family back home.