With additional reporting by Chris Lee
Eventually, the case ended in a rather unsatisfactory way. We can hardly fault Jalil Shaikh Bala Miah Shaikh, 27, for being frustrated with the outcome.
His case shows how Singapore’s work injury compensation system is stacked against migrant workers. Whenever an employer flatly denies to the authorities that an accident took place at his worksite, the employee bears the burden of proof that the employer’s version of events is incorrect. Yet, it is the boss who is in control of the worksite and the evidence contained thereon; he is also in control, as employer, of fellow workers who may have witnessed the accident. Getting around this inherent bias in the system requires public servants to be sensitive to the context and to apply their minds to circumstantial evidence which may be all a worker has.
Jalil’s case shows how circumstantial evidence can help illuminate what really happened and which side is much more likely to be truthful.
Jalil’s account of the accident went like this: Around 9pm on 27 October 2012, he was working late in a room by himself, seated, painting empty gas cylinders. It was apparently quite a congested room with a stock of cylinders stacked behind him while he worked. Something disturbed the stack and he sensed the cylinders beginning to tumble onto his back. He jumped up and lunged about two steps forward to reach the door. As he did so, he turned back to look at how the cylinders were falling and to assess the distance. In that split second, he misjudged the position of the door frame, and with his head still turned to the side, his nose hit the door frame as he rushed out of the exit.
He fell over with his nose in great pain.
“I call boss,” he later said to TWC2. “Boss ask what happened. I say my nose maybe broken. Many blood coming.”
The boss advised him to get himself to a hospital. Jalil sought out a co-worker to borrow $50 and went to Alexandra Hospital. An X-ray was done and he was told that an operation was needed, for which he would need to admit himself to National University Hospital (NUH). “CT scan show many blood inside,” he recalled of that consultation. “Doctor confirm it broken.”
The operation was scheduled for 2 November 2012.
When his employer heard about the scheduled operation, “My boss see money only,” was how Jalil described his reaction. His boss’ wife’s brother went to NUH. “He talk to doctor, and after that, my doctor cancel the operation date.”
With bleeding stopped and pain under control through medication, Jalil’s medical leave came to an end mid November. At a follow-up appointment on 16 November, the doctor said there wasn’t much more he could do without surgery. “Doctor say, ‘Now you no operation, what can I do?'” Jalil’s nose was healing out of shape — “You see, my nose now crooked” — and obstructing the air passage. One nostril is virtually blocked and the other narrowed. He told TWC2 that he could no longer breathe normally except through his throat. “I cannot sleep,” was how disruptive it was to normal living.
With no medical treatment, his case proceeded quite rapidly to assessment of permanent incapacity, Jalil told us. He said he had an assessment on or around 15 February 2013, which either awarded or recommended eight points for compensation calculation.
Yet, from quite early on, Jalil suspected that his employer was intent on denying that a workplace accident occurred. “At first, boss ask me to say to MOM, I slip and fall, ” he informed TWC2. “Then later he tell MOM [it was] no accident, but I fighting.”
Eight months later, when he was interviewed by TWC2 in July 2013, his compensation claim was still suspended. Needless to say, he was getting no treatment either. He believed that MOM was making a presumption in favour of the employer’s version of events and allowing the treatment to be stopped. Naturally, he wasn’t happy. That month, he was also asked to attend a polygraph test to check if he was lying about the incident. Not only is such a test considered highly unreliable, MOM did not give any clear answer to TWC2 when we asked whether the employer was also asked to take a similar test. One would have thought that fairness required both sides to be tested, even if they were using a hopelessly discreditted method.
TWC2 noticed that Jalil’s employer of record was Civic Land Construction Pte Ltd and he was classified as a construction worker. His story about painting empty industrial gas cylinders being his main job therefore seemed rather odd. It was only when we asked him why his job involved doing that that it emerged that he had been deployed away from his work permit-specified job.
Jalil told TWC2 that he had been asked by his boss at Civic Land to work at the workshop of a company called Krisco. “My boss, he own two companies,” explained Jalil, and for that reason, it didn’t originally matter to him that he was sent to work there. To prove that he was based at Krisco, he had photos on his mobile phone showing invoices and other documents whose letterheads said ‘Krisco’. “When cyclinder come in or go out, I see so many paper, that’s why I can take this picture. All paper have Krisco name,” he argued. “If I not working there, how I know about Krisco?”
These assertions provided TWC2 with two testable leads: (1) Is there a gas cylinder company called Krisco? (2) Does it have the same boss as Civic Land? If they are found to support Jalil’s story, they would lend weight to his account.
A simple check with the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) revealed that Civic Land Construction had just one shareholder with 100% of the shares. He was:
- V Chandra Mohan with an address on Yishun Street 81.
Another check (as at December 2013 and April 2014) showed that there is indeed a company known as Krisco Industrial Gas Pte Ltd, with the following shareholders:
- V Chandra Mohan, (Yishun Street 81), 56,666 shares;
- Vimala d/o Krishnan (Yishun Street 81), 56,667 shares;
- Nirmala d/o Krishnan (Pasir Ris Street 21), 50,000 shares;
- Vishnu s/o Krishnan (Pasir Ris Street 12), 56,667 shares.
Chandra Mohan and Vimala shared the same address — they appear to be husband and wife. These two were also directors of Krisco; the other two shareholders were not directors. It therefore suggested that while all their shareholdings were roughly of similar proportions, it was Chandra Mohan (perhaps with Vimala) who ran Krisco Industrial Gas.
It is worth noting too that three of the four shareholders are sons or daughters of a certain Krishnan. Earlier, Jalil mentioned a “boss’ wife’s brother” who intervened at the hospital to stop his operation. Might this person be Vishnu s/o Krishnan?
The very fact that Jalil, who had no internet access and had never heard of ACRA, could name a company which turned out to have a common shareholder and director with Civic Land, must surely be very telling to any reasonable person. Jalil could not have plucked the name ‘Krisco’ out of thin air.
In TWC2’s view, the balance of probability would favour Jalil’s account.
Illegal deployment, if such is the case here, hints at a possible explanation for the employer’s insistence that the accident did not occur at work.
Firstly, since Jalil was employed officially by Civic Land, with his work permit showing the same, his work injury insurance would also have been under this company’s name. But once an insurance company discovers that a worker was not injured at the named company’s workplace, it would be within its right to refuse to cover the medical expenses and any permanent incapacity compensation that follows. This does not mean the employer is any less liable, but now it has to pay out of its own pocket.
Secondly, if Civic Land were to admit to MOM that the worker had been sent to work at a different location, it would be face penalties.
These would be powerful reasons for Civic Land to deny that Jalil’s injury was work-related.
However, the impact on Jalil was serious: he was denied further medical treatment and appropriate compensation. MOM never seemed to have resolved the uncertainty and found in favour of Jalil, even though with the facts presented above, it should be obvious what conclusion was called for. TWC2 provided the results of our investigation to Jalil and we urged him to present the same information to MOM. We’re not sure whether he did so, or whether his case officer at MOM failed to grasp the significance of the facts and dismissed them as irrelevant.
Three thousand dollars
After more than a year of stress and waiting, Jalil told us in early 2014 that the company offered him a private settlement of $3,000. It was way below what he felt he deserved but unhappily, he felt he didn’t have much choice but to take it.