‘The employers believe these workers exaggerate their injuries to fool doctors’ – so reported the Straits Times on 9 November 2013 (‘Hospitals give too much sick leave for injuries: Bosses’ by Amelia Tan)
Is this true? How often does this happen?
Transient Workers Count Too, seeing over a thousand injury cases a year, can say that it may occasionally happen. We can’t rule it out. However, the majority of cases we come across look genuinely serious to us. In spite of not being medically trained, our senior volunteers can make a reasonable judgement based on both the injury and the discharge summary and hospital records.
More importantly, when the migrant worker lodges a compensation claim for a relatively minor injury, there tends to be a back story to it. It is important to understand this back story, and not merely accuse the worker of being a malingerer.
It is this understanding that better points to an effective solution. Casting workers as cheats while overlooking other factors in question only serves to perpetuate the problem and ignore the roles played by other actors.
Take Das Thiru (not his real name) for example. He was on a bicycle with sharp tools and extension cables in the front basket when he fell off. He had been tasked to ferry these items from the storage shed to the work area. Both the storage shed and work area were within a shipyard.
Falling, he landed at such an awkward angle that he hurt his back. He also scraped both knees quite badly. Another worker, passing by, helped him to his feet and alerted Thiru’s foreman.
“Foreman say nothing problem,” recounted Thiru. “He say go house. ‘I give you medicine’, he say.”
In pain, Thiru wanted medical attention. “I say I want to go doctor, my two leg many blood coming.” The foreman continued to refuse.
For the next four days, the company seemed to accept the fact that Thiru was unable to work. They let him rest in the dormitory, suggesting that there was some recognition that it was more serious than just a scratch.
By the fourth day however, Thiru became worried that his injury wasn’t healing properly and asked again to be sent to a doctor. But “foreman say, ‘[If] you go, you pay. [If] you go, company send [you] back.’”
That left the worker in a fix. He felt he needed medical attention, but the price of getting it would be losing his job.
“I pay $4,000 for agent money,” he added, “Not yet get back. How can send back?” Being relatively new in the job, he had not yet recovered the $4,000 he had paid to secure this employment. To be repatriated at this point would leave him and his family in the red. The money lenders were waiting for him in India.
Thiru went anyway to Tan Tock Seng Hospital for treatment; the consulting doctor gave him seven days’ medical leave. On presenting the medical certificate to the boss, he could see that the company didn’t want anything more to do with him.
“Office never say anything. They just take [the] MC paper. But I can see boss face. He look at me, like angry, like that,” was how the 22-year-old described the scene.
Fearful of being caught by strong-armed repatriation agents hired by his employer to seize and take him to the airport, Thiru had to find a way to stay on in Singapore to continue with his treatment. He had seen other injured workers repatriated by these same men after they suffered workplace injuries and feared the same would happen to him. He would have been willing to rest until he was well enough to continue work, but he knew that the employer would see him as a troublesome and costly worker, one to be got rid off as soon as possible.
Thiru went to a lawyer, who assured him that once he lodged a claim under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) he would be safe from the repatriation gang. He then fled the dormitory for a hovel in Little India.
While Thiru didn’t quite say it in so many words, TWC2 also knew that finding a way to get enough money to make up for the placement fee must also have been a consideration in his mind.
How serious are Thiru’s injuries? It’s hard for a non-medical professional to say. Even if they are not minor, he might well make a complete recovery, in which case, no compensation would be payable since there would be no permanent incapacity. But lodging a WICA claim buys him time when the company, given the threat of immediate repatriation issued by the foreman, would not provide it to him.
So what’s the real story?
Is Thiru exaggerating his injuries? We don’t know for sure what’s in his mind. But since he’s being seen by medical professionals, it is unlikely that he or anyone can get away with much exaggeration.
Understanding the context is important. Employers resist having to pay for medical treatment or support workers on their payroll while on sick leave. It is all too tempting to point at a worker and say he is lying or exaggerating his injuries, and to suggest that the WICA claim is unfounded, than to admit to their own motives.
In Das Thiru’s case, here was a worker who was being denied medical treatment and facing a real risk of termination and early repatriation which would leave him in dire financial straits. From his perspective, the only avenue open to him was to assert his medical rights through activating a WICA claim. It may or may not result in any compensation, but he can hardly be blamed keeping that avenue open in the hope that he is found to deserve something. The alternatives are so bad. The humiliation of being sent home injured and with nothing to show for his short stint in Singapore was an unbearable prospect.
His story makes it quite clear that the genesis of the problem was the unhelpful attitude of the employer when faced with even a relatively minor injury. Denying a worker medical treatment is neither ethical nor in keeping with the law. Enforcing that denial through threatened termination and repatriation only escalates the problem.
Moreover, a labour recruitment ecosystem in which workers pay thousands of dollars for their jobs – and it’s an open secret that some employers take kickbacks – cannot be ignored as a factor either. The higher the fees workers pay, the more desperate they are to find ways to recover the money when they can’t work following an accident.
The problem then is not that workers exaggerate their injuries. It is that they may be left with no other choice outside of lodging a WICA claim.