By Lucas Ho

Just as Zahir is getting to the part about MC money halfway through the interview, TWC2 vice-president Alex Au walks by. He overhears Zahir mention a few numbers — numbers which don’t quite make sense to me, but whose significance Alex grasps straight away.

In case we have been mistaken, Alex asks me to go through the numbers with Zahir again. And this is what the injured worker says: He had a total of 85 days of medical leave, for which he was entitled to medical leave wages (‘MC money’) under the law. For many months, this was not paid, until “I go MOM complain, then only boss pay me.” Zahir received a total of $1,019.60 — part of which was actually reimbursement of medical expenses he had paid himself.

With that, Zahir’s conclusion is that “All pay already.”

Alex, arms akimbo, looks him straight in the face and tells him, “I don’t think so.”

Further questions reveal that prior to the accident, Zahir was earning about $1,200 to $1,300 a month as a skilled construction worker. The law says that MC money for someone who is not hospitalised should be paid at a rate that is two-thirds of his average monthly earnings. In Zahir’s case, this should be about $800 a month. For 85 days of medical leave (almost three months), the total ought to be about $2,300.

“$1,019.60 just doesn’t cut it,” said Alex. “Especially if, as [Zahir] himself tells us, about $300 of that is for medical expenses. Something appears to be wrong somewhere.”

Alex advises Zahir to go back to MOM to get the amounts checked.

Employers under-calculating MC pay is quite common, according to longer-serving TWC2 volunteers. The problem lies partly in the fact that workers aren’t aware what the formula is, and it is tempting for employers to take advantage of their ignorance.

Zahir Abdul Barak. 39, is skilled at gas-cutting. On 17 October 2013, the eight-inch pipe he was cutting fell off and hit the platform on which he was standing. The platform shook uncontrollably and he fell about three metres to the ground. Landing on a pile of sprinkler pipes waiting to be installed, he hurt his elbow and his back.

“China man supervisor and Shahaputin [a fellow Bangladeshi worker] come and carry me,” he recalls of the moments after. They put him on the company lorry and took him to hospital. “I very pain, cannot move. In hospital, I have to urine in a bottle.”

He was hospitalised for two days before being discharged to his company’s dormitory in Soon Lee.

He has recovered somewhat but his back is still stiff. “Even now, I cannot bend,” he tells me. It’s been nine months since the accident. He gets up to show me the maximum he can bend his torso; he can barely do a shallow Japanese bow.

For the first two months he rested at the dorm, but his co-workers were soon warning him that as soon as he was well enough to walk, “Boss will send me back.” However, the boss himself never actually said it to him. There’s a widespread belief among foreign workers that employers don’t want to carry injured workers on their payroll a day longer than absolutely necessary.

As for the basis for that belief, Zahir explains, “Many worker, they working in many different company before, they know. They see the boss there all send back injury worker.

“They tell me, be careful.”

So when he had regained his mobility, Zahir packed his things and left. He is now staying in a filthy room in Little India — all that he can afford from his savings.

It’s another common tale. Virtually all the workers seen by TWC2 have quit company-supplied accommodation.

Later that same evening, I speak to another injured construction worker, Anis. He too quit company accommodation, but unlike Zahir, it wasn’t just rumoured fear that made him leave. His boss had explicitly told him he must go home even though he was still undergoing treatment.

Yet, the law makes it quite clear that employers cannot repatriate a worker until the compensation claim process is concluded. “However, creating a climate of fear serves employers well, making it impossible for workers to stay on, saving costs for the employer,” explains Alex. TWC2 has been trying to make the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) understand the situation, but he is not sure if the message has sunk in.

Alex’s remarks prompts Anis to mention his own experience at the ministry: “MOM ask me why I come out, not stay in dorm.

“I laugh. MOM … they don’t know anything. They don’t know worker life, how.”