By Lucas Sim

All through my hour with Masud (not his real name), I was expecting him to say something like ‘my boss don’t want me to see doctor’,  or ‘my boss don’t want to pay for my treatment’. These are common complaints that volunteers like me hear from workers coming to Transient Workers Count Too for help.

Not only did he not say anything of this kind, his story seems to be an unusual one: that of an employer who was laudably accommodating to its employee. Yet, Masud is here at TWC2’s meal point, estranged from his employer. What happened? Why?

The shipyard worker had a metal plate fall on his foot in the evening of Friday 6 November 2015. His supervisor and a few colleagues saw it happen. He was immediately taken to the shipyard’s Safety Point where a safety officer put some ice on the foot and filled out a report form. This seemed to have taken a while, though Masud could not say precisely how long. He thinks it took more than an hour.

His supervisor then took him to West Point Hospital later the same evening where the doctor ordered an x-ray. Speaking largely through the supervisor, the doctor informed Masud that a bone in his foot had been fractured. It might need an operation but, according to Masud, “no bone doctor in hospital” so surgery could not be performed immediately.  He was given a “painkiller injection”, some medicine, and told to come back for an appointment three days later, on Monday 9 November. Masud was also given three days’ medical leave.

He was then taken by the supervisor in the company vehicle back to his dormitory in Penjuru. Immediately it became clear that his dorm room on the fifth level of the dorm complex wasn’t suitable for someone who couldn’t walk or climb stairs, but other than a brief mention of this difficulty, Masud does not explain how this problem was solved. Maybe it was never solved, for he repeatedly speaks of how hard it was for him to move about.

The swelling became very bad over the weekend. Unimpressed with West Point (“this one small hospital. Also, how can hospital not have bone doctor?”) he told his supervisor that he wished to go to a bigger hospital on Monday instead of going back to West Point. Well-founded or not, there were trust issues.

The request was relayed to his manager and the reply that came back was supportive. “Manager say if I don’t want go West Point, I can go direct to bigger hospital.” Not only that, Masud didn’t have to make his own way there — something many other workers that TWC2 sees had to do, pain nothwithstanding — but the company’s van driver was instructed to take him to National University Hospital’s (NUH’s) Emergency Department. The driver was also given cash to pay for Masud’s treatment there. “Company give him money to pay for me,” recalls Masud.

At NUH, he was x-rayed again, and once more told (“this time I speak direct to doctor, because supervisor not there”) that a bone in his foot was broken. “But also, no bone doctor there, so I not see specially [specialist] bone doctor.” He says this with a slight chuckle, aware of the irony of choosing NUH over West Point. It may well be that there was no need at this stage to see a specialist, but workers like him may not know this.

NUH gave him seven days’ medical leave and told him to come back on 16 November.

Once more, the driver and company vehicle took him to NUH on the 16th. There, “doctor ask me choose date for operation. Can choose between date 17 and date 24. I quickly choose date 17 [November 17th, the following day].” Masud seems very impressed with Singapore’s healthcare system — what a wonderful thing that a patient is given a choice of dates for an operation!

As scheduled, his foot was operated on the next day.

“Who paid for the operation?” I ask.

“Company. Company give guarantee letter [to hospital],” he replies.

Alex, a more experienced volunteer at TWC2, listening in on my interview, says, “This reflects very well on the employer. Other workers have employers that drag their feet about providing letters of guarantee, such that their treatment is delayed for months and months. Here, this employer provided one within 24 hours so that the operation could proceed.”

Following surgery, Masud has had follow-up doctor appointments and physiotherapy.

And yet, “today I come out of company room,” says Masud. He has quit the dorm, which means he has to pay for his own room in Little India from now on. It doesn’t make sense. It’s been more than three months since the accident during which the employer has done its part in providing treatment and housing him. He is clearly able to walk (maybe with slight difficulty) so a fifth floor room shouldn’t be a problem any more even if it had been so at the beginning.

Today too he engaged a lawyer.

“Why?” I ask.

“I must make insurance claim,” he says. And then he reveals the kicker: He says that the employer will get “many money, maybe nine thousand or ten thousand like that” for the accident. Unless he himself staked a claim on the money, only a small portion of this would go to him, if any at all.

Incredulous, I ask, “How do you know that?”

“All man know,” says Masud. He tells me that it is common knowledge though he is unable to pinpoint exactly how he first came to hear this.

Alex informs me that this is simply not true. Disability compensation is a structured process governed by legislation. It does not allow employers to profit from it. The pay-outs serve to reimburse medical  and medical-leave costs borne by employers and employees, and provide compensation to the worker for permanent disability. “No more, no less,” he stresses.

“Might it be the law firms who ‘specialise’ in work injury cases, who are spreading such rumours in order to attract business?” Alex muses. Might some trust issues be fanned by unscrupulous persons?