By Keith Wong

“He do nothing,” says Tariqul of his lawyer. Tariqul’s medical assessment was “more than three months” ago, and he’s been waiting to hear how many “points” (a measure of permanent disability) has been awarded for his leg injury. But his lawyer keeps on telling him to “wait, wait”.

That’s the same answer given to him whenever Tariqul broaches the subject of his medical leave wages. “Lawyer also say, ‘wait, wait’. He say go home time, then all get.” This is very often heard. Lawyers tell their worker clients that they will collect their medical leave wages for them right at the end of the process even though the law says it should be paid by employers monthly, just like salaries.

For a while, Tariqul could afford to wait because his “cousin-brother” was also working in Singapore and could loan him money to live on. But the cousin-brother was recently repatriated and now Tariqul feels he really must have his MC wages, or else he wants his injury claim wrapped up so he can go home. He is frustrated that nothing seems to be happening and his lawyer is regularly putting him off.

Social worker Karno tells me workers don’t only have problems with employer misdeeds and slow bureaucratic processes at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in sorting out their claims, but sometimes their cases are complicated by their own lawyers. When, with TWC2’s help, they discharge their lawyers and raise the matter of MC wages directly with MOM, they can get their MC wages without further delay.  This suggests that Tariqul may be right: the inaction of his lawyer is key.

Abraham, a TWC2 volunteer, is there with his laptop at the Cuff Road Meal Program. Around him are gathered about four workers waiting their turn. Each asks him to go online to look up his Work Injury Compensation (WICA)  case status, hoping to see some progress from his last check.

For Mohsin it’s his first time consulting with Abraham; all along he’s depended on his lawyer telling him how things were progressing. “My lawyer say everything he take care for my case,” Mohsin tells me, sounding quite satisfied with his attorney. 

So why are you queuing up to check your WICA status? I ask him.

“I see other man do, so I do,” he says with a sheepish grin — which, I have to admit, has an undeniable logic. It’s a free service provided by TWC2, so why not?

When Mohsin’s turn comes, he passes Abraham some documents. Based on reference numbers contained therein, Abraham looks up Mohsin’s status. Then Abraham does a slow double-take, looking at his screen, turning to the documents, and back again.

“You have not yet lodged your WICA claim?” he asks Mohsin.

Mohsin is confused, and Abraham has to repeat the question. After a pause, Mohsin says: No, he didn’t, but “my lawyer take care.”

It takes a few minutes and several attempts to successfully explain to Mohsin: His lawyer has not filed a work injury claim on his behalf. The online record says that while MOM has been notified of the accident, no claim has been filed.

But it’s already four months after the accident, Mohsin protests.

“When did you go to this lawyer,” Abraham patiently asks him. “Only recently?”

About a month after the accident, Mohsin says, which means it was about three months ago, around the time he presented his second medical certificate to his employer, extending his medical leave. “Then my boss angry talking.” The employer told him to start packing his bags as he was going to buy an air ticket.

“How can like that? I still have doctor appointment. I still have MC not finish.”

Not knowing how to assert his right to medical treatment and compensation by himself, he asked among his friends and was introduced to a lawyer.

But tonight, he’s at a loss again. Despite soothing words about looking after his case, his lawyer has not done the one thing Mohsin wanted him to do: to lodge a WICA claim.

Tariqul and Mohsin ask what they can do now. Karno and Abraham tell them they should consider discharging their lawyers.

“I think better I discharge my lawyer,” agrees Tariqul immediately. “I directly [deal with] MOM better,” he says to no one in particular. “My lawyer, he do nothing.”

Unlike Tariqul, who seems have been dissatisfied with his lawyer for a while, and has had time to come to a decision, Mohsin remains unsure. It’s going to take some time for the idea of going it alone to sink in and sit comfortably with him. He needs to find the self-confidence to make the move.

Tariqul senses it the same way, and starts talking to Mohsin in Bengali. I don’t understand the language but it is obvious that Tariqul is saying to him: If your lawyer is not doing anything for you, why retain him? The two then get absorbed in their conversation, ignoring me completely. I pack my pen and notepad to leave. I know they’ll be alright in the end.