By Sonia Pillai

Quite early in the interview, Palani Srinivasan, 43, mentions that his lawyer has told him to go home after his third operation. “Let me do collection for you,” was what (according to Srinivasan) his lawyer said.

TWC2 vice-president Alex Au, who is sitting beside me, thinks it rather strange. “His WICA process is not yet over,” he whispers to me, “but his lawyer is not advising him to complete the process?” WICA stands for Work Injury Compensation Act, under which a worker, who has suffered permanent incapacity, should be compensated for future loss of earnings. It is a no-fault process (i.e. it is not necessary to prove that the employer is at fault) for accidents that occur at the workplace. But because it requires medical assessment of the permanent incapacity, the patient needs to remain in Singapore to complete the process.

By telling Srinivasan that he can go home, leaving it to the law firm to “do collection”, it suggests that the lawyer intends to prematurely terminate the WICA process and sue the employer in court. However, doing so requires being able to prove negligence on the part of the employer – very different from the WICA process , and usually a much longer wait. Alternatively, the lawyer can settle the case out of court with the employer, though if the employer suspects that the lawyer has no proof, he can just call the lawyer’s bluff.

Srinivasan has had two operations since his accident. He has eight screws in his middle finger, and is awaiting a third operation as he is unable to use his right hand properly.

The accident, involving a 3-metre concrete panel, hurt Srinivasan’s neck, shoulders, back of head, and three of his fingers, and has left him unable to report to work since September 2013. This is causing hardship to his wife and two children, aged nine and eight, back home in India. “Now very crying only. Working stop, money no send. Very angry,” he says, when asked about his wife’s reaction to his situation.

Further questions confirms Alex’s suspicions. Srinivasan explains that “Now insurance case. Many later, civil case.”

Alex wonders whether Srinivasan is aware that it should be an either/or situation. Did the lawyer properly inform him that going home and choosing the route of a civil suit means giving up all WICA claims? Workers can’t be expected to know all these details and the pros and cons of each route, so lawyers need to be diligent in explaining to them. They must make sure that their clients are able to make informed choices.

Further conversation with Srinivasan reveals that he does not have a clear picture. I later ask a few more workers how much their lawyers explained to them about the process and the prognosis of their cases, and find that most say: not much.

A civil suit is an entirely justifiable route to take if the WICA process results in an offered compensation amount that the worker feels is disproportionately low compared to the severity of the permanent incapacity, or if the employer disputes that it was a workplace injury in the first place (and the worker is confident he can prove it was, as well as that the employer was negligent), says Alex.

The first condition, he explains, does not yet apply in Srinivasan’s case, since the WICA process hasn’t completed and the offered compensation amount is unknown. Nor does the second condition, since, as Srinivasan explains, he is currently getting his medical leave wages from his employer. Medical leave wages are another provision of the WICA law. “By this fact of payment, one senses that the employer is not disputing that it was a workplace injury, and that the provisions of the WICA law apply,” explains Alex. “So why not complete the WICA process?”

Alex concludes: “Srinivasan doesn’t seem to be very clear about the route his case is taking. He seems not to have been advised clearly by his lawyer the difference between the WICA process and a civil suit. The fact that the lawyer has told him that he can expect to go back to India while the lawyer gets some payment indicates that the WICA process is being dismissed even before it has completed.

“TWC2 will be concerned if we see workers who are not clearly informed about their options,” he adds.