Anowar Hossain (above right) was financially desperate ten months after the accident at his worksite. He had been terminated from his shipyard job and received no income since. To pay for food and lodgings, he relied on borrowing. At some point, even friends and relatives tired of lending money without end.

Despite having suffered a wrist injury in October 2011, for which he is still receiving occupational therapy at National University Hospital, he had no choice but to look for some work. It couldn’t be heavy work; the injury left him unable to lift more than 3 kg with his right hand.

He found a cleaner’s job in August 2012 and was promised $35 a day. On his first day of work, Ministry of Manpower officers raided his workplace and caught him. “Only my first day, MOM come to check,” he says half-cursing his bad luck. He is now under investigation for breaching a condition of the special pass which says he is not allowed to work, and faces a likely penalty.

There is a reason why workers still being treated for an injury aren’t generally allowed to work: It can worsen the injury. But if so, the law and the system must address the issue of how these workers are going to survive.

And the law does. Section 14A of the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) provides for  “compensation for temporary incapacity” to be paid monthly while a worker is laid up:

Payment of compensation for temporary incapacity

14A. —(1)  Where any injury by accident arising out of and in the course of employment results in the temporary incapacity of an employee, the compensation the employer shall pay to the employee shall be a periodical payment of the amount prescribed in paragraph 4 of the Third Schedule

(2)  Such compensation in respect of injury resulting in temporary incapacity of an employee shall be in accordance with paragraph 4 of the Third Schedule, and shall be payable not later than the same day as earnings would have been payable to the employee under the contract of service or apprenticeship under which he was employed at the time of the accident (except that the interval between periodical payments shall in no case exceed one month) even though —

no claim for compensation in respect of that injury is made under this Act; or

a claim for compensation in respect of that injury has not been assessed or determined by the Commissioner.

The term “temporary incapacity” is coterminous with what laymen understand as “medical leave” or “medical certificate (MC) leave”. The Third Schedule mentioned in the cited paragraphs sets out a formula for calculating “temporary incapacity compensation” or what is commonly known as “MC pay”. It is two-thirds of the worker’s average monthly earnings (AME) before his injury if he is on MC but not hospitalised. According to an information brochure published by the ministry, “AME includes wages, allowances, overtime payments, bonuses or annual wage supplement” (see here).

The law is also very clear that MC pay should be paid to the employee at the normal times when salaries are paid, and no more than at one-month intervals.

“I have MC for four month more, until March next year (2013), but my company never pay me MC pay,” says Anowar. “How I live?”

“I ask, so many time I ask, but still never pay.”

As is obvious from the picture (above left), Alagappan Kathiya suffered a bad eye injury. On 11 June 2012, the construction worker was water-jetting a wall to rinse off chemicals that had earlier been brushed onto it. The splash-back of chemical-infused water was what caused the injury.

“Supervisor no give goggle,” he told TWC2. “Only have safety glass,” which hardly protects the eyes from infiltration from the sides.

Although the accident happened around 4 pm, the safety officer told him to wait to the end of the shift before getting medical attention, Kathiya said. By the time he went to a clinic in Little India (and paid $65 himself, a sum not yet reimbursed to him by his employer), it was nearly six hours later.

“Many pain in eye,” he recalled. “But doctor only give me one day MC.”

Two days later, still hurting, he made his way to Singapore General Hospital, accompanied by a company representative. At least the cost of treatment there was borne by the company.

Income-wise, he is a little better off than Anowar. Kathiya received $20 a day for the first 80 days after the accident. Thereafter, he received $346.67 a month. He even showed TWC2 a photocopy of his most recent cheque:

Here at least was an employer who recognised his responsibility to pay MC wages on a monthly basis — a responsibility that is obvious from any plain reading of the law. However, the amount is questionable.

“Last time, I working time, my salary every month about $800 or $850,” Kathiya says. Therefore, since the law says MC pay should be two-thirds of average monthly earnings, it ought to be somewhere in the region of $550 a month, not $346.67.

$800 to $850 a month is not likely to be an exaggeration. It is coherent with another statement that Kathiya made: that during his first 80 days after his accident, he was paid $20 a day. This strongly indicates that the employer acknowledged his basic pay to be $520 a month (26 days x $20). With overtime, he would be making about $800 to $850.

And it so happens that $346.67 is exactly two-thirds of $520. In other words, the employer appears to be using the formula of two-thirds of basic pay when it should be two-thirds of AME which includes allowances and overtime.

When TWC2 asked Kathiya why he did not dispute the amount, he said, “My boss say he go to MOM and MOM tell him pay me $346.67.” Kathiya assumed the computation would be correct. Whether the boss actually went to MOM to enquire, it’s not possible to know for sure.

Why the difference in Kathiya’s and Anowar’s experience? One employer probably chose to follow the law (but appear to have misapplied the formula) while another chose to ignore it.

MOM doesn’t seem to have any system whatsoever to check and ensure that MC wages are paid promptly and correctly. This neglect leads to real hardship for workers who are already suffering from physical injury. Complaining to MOM about the matter doesn’t always help. Some workers get something for a month or two, perhaps because their case officers are energetic about reminding their employers, but many workers find nothing but inaction, despite officials having statutory powers to compel employers to pay.

Yet, as Anowar’s story shows, MOM is very quick to catch and penalise workers for working illegally, even if out of desperation. As an earlier story about Ashraful shows, (MOM tough on worker, lets employer run rings around laws) the ministry can insist on repatriating a worker without him getting his injury compensation once he is caught working. The effect is to punish victims and let employers escape the law. How perverse can officialdom get?