By Elizabeth Zhou
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) recently printed colourful flyers in four languages – English, Chinese, Bengali and Tamil. Meant to reassure and educate the migrant worker community of the procedures and processes in place to take care of their rights, these flyers paint an image of a benign and helpful ministry, one they ought to turn to in the event of a workplace accident.
Paternalistically titled “What to do if you’re injured at work?” and “Stay with your employer when you have a work injury”, the exchange between an injured worker and his friendly colleague are captured in brightly lit, dreamy spaces. “What to do if you’re injured at work takes place” has a diffused glow effect applied to it’s backdrop, while “Stay with your employer when you have a work injury” is set in a brightly lit, un-crowded and sparse room (which one imagines could be a dormitory) – an intimate, fantastical space away from the dangerous everyday realities of the construction site and overcrowding in dormitories here.
It is in this dreamscape that a confident assured worker dispenses presumably good advice to his injured colleague. The adviser-worker is distinguished by his yellow hard helmet and lime green vest – markers of his compliance with international safety regulations. His obedience is rewarded, for unlike the injured worker who is swathed in bandages, he has emerged from the worksite unscathed and unhurt.
His safe and healthy state confers moral authority upon him, one branded by MOM. “Have you told your boss the accident?” he asks, his mouth quite round, matching his Tezuka-inspired eyes. “Good.” he reassures his friend/worker as the injured worker nods in affirmation, “MOM will help you with your compensation claim”.
But reality for migrant workers is so different from these images that it is only within these self-contained, detached, whimsical, and fantastical backdrops that such narratives may gain any semblance of veracity.
The fault with such posters lies not simply in it’s rosy-hued, uncomplicated depiction of reality, but in it’s endorsement of the standard Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) procedures that silently chastise the migrant worker’s “ignorant” responses.
“What to do if you’re injured at work” accuses the injured worker of failing to report a work injury to boss because he is “scared”. The injured worker is then chastised for seeking help from a lawyer because he doesn’t know MOM has interpreters and officers who are “friendly and helpful”. “Stay with your Employer when you have a work injury” delivers these same subtle accusations. Driven by urgency, the injured worker rushes to pack his things and leave “before boss sends me home” only to have his intentions abruptly corrected and rectified by an apparently well-meaning friend and advisor.
The narrative now seems clearer: the problems migrant workers face is not a consequence of the lack of proper institutional procedures, but a matter of their own fears and ignorance.
Rahman Mohammad Shamsur is 27 years old. Born in Bangladesh he came here to earn enough money to marry his girlfriend. His dream like many others before him was foiled by an unfortunate work injury.
On 7 January, 2014, Rahman became the victim of a forklift accident. The driver, he later learned, was an unlicensed operator, an external contractor the company had engaged presumably to reduce cost.
According to the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA), all medical costs incurred as a result of a work-related accident and compensation must be paid for in full by the employer. Rahman however, had to wait more than three months for his “MC money”, and even so, was not paid the full sum owed to him.
“Boss MC money no give,” Rahman grumbles angrily, “boss very bad (with) money, lawyer talking but money no give”.
Typically, the formula for “MC money” is two-thirds of a worker’s salary. In Rahman’s case, his “MC money” amounted to approximately $839 per month or a total of $2,517 for three months.
But why did Rahman feel the need to engage a lawyer?
As Rahman sat down to speak with us, we learnt that the story was not as simple as MC money uncompensated. In fact, Rahman had also been owed his salary for the month of December 2013, as well as for 6 days of work in January 2014. This amounted to a total of $4,066. $1,259 for his work in December 2013, $290 for his 6 days of work in January 2014, and $2,517 for 3 months of MC money (January – March).
To Rahman, $4,066 was the sum total owed to him. But for legal and administrative “clarity”, this number must be split into two parts – salary owed and “MC money” owed. Defaulting on salary and on work injury claims are two distinct offences overseen by two different departments of the Ministry of Manpower. This important difference is however meaningless to migrant workers like Rahman, whose immediate concern is to get back all the money that is rightfully his. This process is complicated when employers pay ex-employees lump sums without itemized pay slips, receipts, or proper documentation.
Take for example the instance when Rahman’s employer returned Rahman $2,300 out of the $4,066 that was owed in March 2014, after a two month delay. Without an itemized pay slip or receipt, it is unclear what this $2,300 is for. Yet in order to effectively file for a claim with MOM officers, migrant workers like Rahman are not only asked to explain these numbers but also to show documentary prove to bolster their explanation. What is a worker to do, if his word is distrusted simply because his employer, did not provide him with any documentary proof?
Powerless and penniless, Rahman decided to go to a lawyer on the advice of his friend. Lawyers, unlike MOM officers provide a more dedicated and effective service. They are also typically able to communicate better with the workers as they come from similar cultural-linguistic backgrounds. While the posters suggest that going to MOM for help is the more rational course of action, the point here is that Rahman sought the help of lawyers because he knew MOM’s services were inadequate in providing him with the support he needed given his linguistic and documentary limitations. (see this previous article After an eight month slog through the labour court, Durai wins back his overtime pay for one worker’s struggle to get back his overtime pay).
Rahman’s demands to be paid his due also soured his relationship with his boss. Following which, he made the decision to leave his dorm in Punggol, and instead chose to rent a house from his uncle like many migrant workers. Was this an act of cowardice spun by ignorance?
I don’t think so. Reports of bosses sending injured workers home in order to avoid paying for compensation or medical costs are real and a very common occurrences (see After eight loyal years, fired when he fell ill, Falling 3 metres, Homun feels he’s a marked target, Seven to seven, and Gripped by two repatriation agents, Monjor is taken to airport). Rather, renting a room from his uncle was an intelligent and calculated move to protect himself from the terrifying realities that Rahman knew could very well befall him if he did not act as such.
As Rahman completes his story, Alex points to the benign-looking worker-advisor in the poster and asks, “So… does ‘boss’ look like that or not?”
“Yes, also carry stick. But to hit lah…” Rahman laughs.
I hope to have shown through Rahman’s story that these MOM endorsed posters while seemingly well-intentioned, stand as accusations that label the injured worker’s responses as a condition of his ignorance. But Rahman clearly did not act on ignorance.
 Typically, helmet colours signify different roles and positions on the job site. White helmets are usually reserved for supervisors and upper management, while yellow helmets distinguish general workers who have no set specialty.
 Workers may hold the same rank, but some are held in higher regard and positions of trust than others. Employers and supervisors rely on this tacit hierarchy of power to keep watch over their employees. The use of the word “boss” in this context can refer to a general worker who has been vested with such powers. Rahman may have been joking, but his laughter reminded me of what another worker, Homun had told me before – “over here [at our worksite], worker control worker”.