By Joyce Wong
He signed and accepted the five points awarded through the injury assessment and is waiting for the payout to go home. But on checking his case status via MOM’s website, he is surprised to learn he is scheduled for a pre-hearing conference.
“So what did your lawyer and MOM officer say about your case?” I ask.
“Lawyer said five points*. I accepted. MOM said boss case finished. Next month final meeting.” Zainuddin [a pseudonym] replies with relief on his face. “After I get money, I go home,” he continues happily.
|*This refers to the work injury assessment. The ‘points’ denotes the extent of the permanent incapacity. More points mean the injury is more severe and therefore the worker will get a higher compensation.|
“Good for you.” Wanting to check the facts again, I continue: “Now, let me repeat, you got back injury on 3 June 2013, and…”
“No, no…accident 20 March 2103,” Zainuddin interrupts my summary. I repeat the date thinking he did not understand me the first time. But he insists I am wrong. I then point out to him that on his MOM appointments card, the accident date is shown to be 3 June 2013. He stares at it for some time and then declares the card is wrong. He hasn’t noticed the error before. Seeing his disbelief, Alex (TWC2 vice-president) gets a volunteer to check on Zainuddin’s case status via the MOM website. When his case record is pulled out, we are all speechless.
Indeed there is a discrepancy. The computer record confirms Zainuddin is correct on the date of accident while the MOM card is wrong. That said, it’s only a clerical error, easily rectified at his next visit to MOM. However, there is something else that is much more significant on the computer record: the case status shows that he is scheduled for a pre-hearing conference.
I ask Alex what this means. He explains that Zainuddin’s case is headed to the Labour Court. I become baffled. Zainuddin’s lawyer has advised him that his injury assessment is five points and he has accepted it. Why is there a need for court hearing? What’s in dispute?
It’s hard to guess, but Alex and the volunteer share that recently they encountered a case wherein a worker accepted the injury assessment but the lawyer reported otherwise to MOM and his employer — in other words, the lawyer flouted his client’s wishes and told them that the worker was not accepting the assessment — and so the case dragged on for a further length of time. The worker discharged his lawyer and TWC2 had to wrangle with MOM to sort things out.
Then Alex turns to ask Zainuddin if he remembers signing any paper with the lawyer. By now he is worried and does not seem to understand the question. Another volunteer comes by and translates Alex’s question to him. Yes. He signed a piece of paper. No. He does not know what the paper says. He thought it was to accept the five-point assessment.
Anxious, Zainuddin tries to convince us that both the lawyer and MOM officer said his injury assessment is five points and he would get his money next month or so. Patiently Alex explains to him that his case status shows otherwise and advises him to get a copy of what he has signed from his lawyer and bring it to Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). Someone will translate that document for him. After hearing the volunteer’s translation, Zainuddin finally nods his head. Then he turns to his companions and they start to discuss actively in their language.
Meantime as I am tidying up my notes, I consider his situation.
Here is a migrant worker who got his back injured while carrying heavy marble in the factory. “One day, I carrying, then suddenly, pain come,” is how he describes the incident. “I drop the marble, and my friend come help me.”
When he presented an extension of his medical leave to his boss, the latter said to him, “You no working. Send back.”
Out of fear, Zainuddin left his room and quickly went to see a lawyer recommended by his friend. Then he went to the Ministry Of Manpower (MOM) to lodge his case. When relating his situation to the MOM officer, it came to light that his boss has done something against the law: Zainuddin and nineteen workers had been housed in the marble factory. Zainuddin was not even aware that it is wrong for employers to ask workers to ‘sleep’ in factories, but clearly, MOM was not going to let something like this pass.
That then became a separate investigation — what Zainuddin refers to as the ‘boss case’ that has recently been settled. However, he does not know if the employer has been taken to task for infringing rules about proper accommodation.
In any case, it isn’t relevant to him anymore, for after he lodged his injury complaint at MOM, he quit the company premises and has been renting a bed for $220 a month. Fortunately, his brothers are also working in Singapore and so they’ve been able to support him through this difficult period.
It may get more difficult now. Where he thought this case was on its way to a conclusion — five points and X dollars of compensation — it’s in flux all over again. What does ‘Labour Court’ mean? How long more will it take? Will he, in the end, get the amount he feels he deserves? What exactly did the lawyer do?