Uzzal’s injury happened like this. On 9 June 2010, he was working on a project in an HDB flat, hacking away floor and wall tiles in a bathroom. The vibration from the hacking machine caused his safety glasses to slip off allowing a chip of tiling to rocket into his right eye.

He experienced immediate and searing pain in the eye, together with bleeding where another piece hit the side of his face. Five or six people working with him witnessed the accident. He went immediately to a clinic in Little India and was given eye drops and two days medical leave. Unable to endure the pain, and suspecting that the injury would require more than eye drops, he sought further treatment at Tan Tock Seng Hospital on the same day.

Despite continued treatment at Tan Tock Seng, Uzzal Kumar Mondal lost vision in the eye. This was assessed to constitute 50% permanent incapacity, translating to work injury compensation of $67,950, as stated in the Manpower ministry’s (MOM’s) Notice of Assessment dated 28 February 2011. MOM’s work injury compensation act is a no-fault system: whether the employer failed to supply adequate safety goggles or the employee neglected to adjust the goggles was not an issue in awarding compensation.

The employer, Mr. Lim, objected, without logic or evidence, that the injury did not take place during work hours. Uzzal’s injury was not in question as the medical reports clearly showed Uzzal to be legally blind in that eye. However, Lim argued that this was not a workplace injury and was a fraudulent claim. What he didn’t mention was that he had not purchased insurance for Uzzal.

The Work Injury Compensation Act requires all employers to purchase injury compensation.

Protracted hearings

The first law firm acting for Uzzal withdrew from the case, fearing that this would be a long and protracted issue, possibly resulting in favour of the employer. Witnesses were still working for the company, but they were unwilling to step forward and speak up for fear of losing their jobs. When a large amount of money is at stake, the employers may take measures to avoid paying injury compensation. In this case, potential witnesses who might have spoken up for Uzzal feared dismissal.

For almost two years the employer attended labour court hearings maintaining that the injury was sustained outside of working hours. Flying chips tile and concrete are not usually a hazard during rest, and common sense would suggest that hacking was the cause. But the employer has introduced doubt into the proceedings, and the hearings had to take their course.

MOM explained on October 2011:

The employer has objected to the Notice of Assessment for this case and the case has been referred to the Labour Court for resolution. Although the Notice of Assessment has been awarded in favour of the injured worker, parties have the right to object to it. The Assistant Commissioner of Labour will generally requires the worker/ solicitor to provide evidence and witnesses to support their case during Labour Court Hearings

MOM explained further in December 2011, apparently anticipating the possibility that Uzzal would lose the case:

 … when case is under adjudication at the Labour Court, the trial will take its full and impartial course to determine the outcome of the worker’s claim. Whatever evidence tendered in the Court by the respective lawyers or respondents will be cross-examined and tested on the veracity of the evidence. The witnesses are also well aware that they give their evidence under oath. Whether there is sufficient evidence or doubt on credibility of the witnesses will be the duty of the lawyer or worker to make his presentations during the Court proceedings. If the Court has ruled not in favor of the worker, then it will be best for the worker to consult his lawyer on the next appropriate action whether to pursue his case in the higher Courts.

Uzzal engaged a second law firm, that was finally able to bring the case to a conclusion in Uzzal’s favour. The MOM Labour Court delivered a decision on 25 October 2012 ordering Uzzal’s company to pay the $69,838.00, this total being the sum of the compensation amount, the unpaid medical expenses, and the medical leave wages.

Medical expenses borne by Uzzal $676.30
Medical leave wages $1,211.70
Permanent injury compensation $67,950.00
Total $69,838.00

A Certificate of Order was sent to the employer on that day, accompanied by a letter from MOM stating that the amount must be paid within 21 days. That deadline has now passed with no action from the employer.

Idle and anxious for two-and-a-half years

Not only has the employer disregarded the Certificate of Order made under the WICA, but he has forced Uzzal to spend these past two-and-a-half years idling in the streets and back alleys of Little India. Uzzal is not permitted to work while on special pass: if caught working, he could be subject to a $5,000 fine or 12 months’ imprisonment or both for working without a valid work permit. Only by borrowing from friends and relatives and by eating at TWC2’s daily food project has he managed to carry on.

Uzzal hasn’t yet told his family about the injury because he doesn’t want to worry them. They know that something must be wrong because he hasn’t been sending home money, so he makes excuses saying that the company doesn’t have enough work. He was previously supporting his parents and his two younger brothers, and sometimes sending money to his older married sister.

“Maybe I can get some money. If I lose this case, I go back. But I have to carry on to the end. If I can’t get money, my life is gone.” He remains calm and appears almost sanguine, in spite of the difficulties brought on by the boss’ failure to buy insurance and his noncompliance with the Ministry’s Acts. MOM’s lack of enforcement of those acts is also a glaring defect in the system that has contributed to the wasted years that Uzzal has suffered without work, without financial assistance, and without providing for his family.

The burden is now on Uzzal to enforce the court order, but there is no guarantee of success. If he is able to bring the employer to task for his negligence, while it could mean fine or jail, there’s small likelihood of it bringing any monetary compensation for Uzzal.