Most of the men who appeal to TWC2 for assistance have lost their jobs and left the company dormitory after suffering a workplace injury and lodging a claim for injury compensation. The majority of them come to TWC2 through the meal program known as The Cuff Road Project (TCRP). In 2015 alone, more than 1,129 injured men registered for the meals and other assistance at TCRP. 1
None of these men are permitted to work after their claim for work injury compensation even if the injury is small and their injuries have healed. Some of the men have suffered major injuries necessitating surgery, lengthy hospitalization, and physiotherapy; it is understandable that they can’t continue working. Others have minor injuries that need simple treatment and heal quickly; most of these men are keen to continue working.
An injured worker who receives proper treatment and is given the opportunity to continue working when the injury has healed, would have no reason to seek TWC2’s help. The injured men who come to us are typically those whose employers do one or more of the following: fail to follow regulations;2 attempt to repatriate their injured workers; prevent them from seeking medical attention; deny that the injury occurred at work; or intimidate witnesses to the accident, thereby making it difficult for the worker to prove that he suffered a workplace injury. Such an employer is likely to employ few workers, supply labour to a larger construction or marine company, operate on a thin profit margin, experience a high turnover of manpower, and pay low salaries. These conditions stifle trust and respect between worker and employer.
Even under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA), when the employer disputes the validity of the compensation claim, the worker may not be able to access medical treatment or receive medical leave wages for months until and unless the claim is accepted as valid by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). These hardships then prompt the worker to seek the assistance of a lawyer, which exacerbates any distrust and hostility the employer may feel towards the injured man.
Many injured men report to TWC2 that their immediate problem following the accident is fear of repatriation. Occasionally workers seek our advice asking what recourse they have when the employer is preparing to repatriate them following an injury. The injured man knows that the injury may not result in permanent incapacity or compensation but he fears returning home empty-handed and to a family still in debt. A worker in this situation typically decides to file an injury claim, in order to prevent his premature repatriation. Even though the injury compensation process may take up to two years,3 many men would rather remain in Singapore than risk the humiliation of facing the family before having earned enough to clear the debt to recruiters and middlemen.4
Sixty percent had relatively minor injuries
The table below shows the compensation payout for 215 of the more than 1,000 injured men who were with TWC2 during 2014. This sample is only those whose compensation information is available in the MOM site 1-2 years after the injury, but can be taken as representative of the claims. The other claims were withdrawn, deemed invalid, still under investigation, or concluded by the time the case was checked.
Injuries resulting in 0-5% permanent incapacity are not insignificant, but nor are they serious enough to require the worker to suspend his employment indefinitely. The worker would prefer that the employer allow him to receive medical treatment and physiotherapy if necessary, rest as long as necessary for the injury to heal, and return to work. The employer, however, concerned about the cost of housing and maintenance of an unproductive worker, and the additional cost of medical treatment and injury compensation, would prefer to repatriate the worker and replace him with a new one. 5 The conflict of interest that results is not conducive to good relations.
Almost half of injuries sustained within first year of work
The next table shows how long the men have worked with their company at the time of their injury. Almost half the injuries (47%) were sustained within one year of employment, and almost 80% within the first three years. These percentages compare quite starkly with the distribution seen among male Work Permit holders at large. Preliminary data from an ongoing (uncompleted) survey being conducted by TWC2 indicate that of 428 uninjured male workers surveyed so far (and who have given us complete answers), only about 13% are in their first year with the present job. About 39% are within their first three years in the present job.
While it’s tempting to highlight the major injuries and criticize the employer for being heartless, it’s also important to consider why that men claim for minor injuries and why the injuries occur so early in the job.
There are several reasons that could be given for why the accident might take place so soon after commencing the job. The list below gives reasons for injuries from the worker’s point of view and from the employer’s. Another important aspect to consider is the trust between employer and employee. Men who have worked years for the same company generally speak with respect and fondness about their employer. Those men are assured that the boss values them for their work and dedication. These relationships develop over time: a worker earns the trust of his boss with hard work, dedication and respect, and responds by continuing to meet his boss’ expectations.
Worker’s view of Employer/Job
- The job is inherently dangerous;
- Supply work (unfamiliar co-workers and unfamiliar surroundings) is more risky than regular work;
- Long overtime hours mean worker is fatigued and unable to concentrate;
- Employer demands that workers exceed prescribed/acceptable time limits or weight loads;
- Employer dodges paying for medical expenses, MC wages and compensation by repatriating worker;
- Employer prefers to replace “troublesome” worker with fresh worker.
Employer’s view of Worker
- Worker disregards safety standards and procedures due to ignorance;
- Worker self-inflicts injury;
- Worker is physically incapable of carrying out prescribed tasks;
- Worker claims a previous injury or a non-workplace injury resulted from the present job;
- Worker exaggerates an injury to claim compensation;
- Worker uses injury to avoid working for present company and to work elsewhere due to higher wages at an illegal job.
Gaming the system?
The Ministry of Manpower, burdened with a massive number of injury compensation claims,6 may suspect that many men ‘game the system’ on work injury compensation, knowing that a special pass that will release them from working for an abusive employer, and give them the opportunity to work (illegally) for an employer of their choosing. MOM may feel some men deliberately use injury claims to seek illegal work, others are forced by financial circumstances.
Filing claims for minor injuries should be seen not simply as gaming the system, but in the light of the workers’ inherently difficult situation and the huge power difference between employer and worker. Consider the low salary for work permit holders, the huge recruitment costs and being bound to one company without the freedom to switch jobs. Men understand the amount of debt incurred in obtaining the job before they arrive, but don’t always know how much they’ll be paid before they arrive. Signed contracts are rare among the South Asian workers and the salary, allowances and deductions noted in the In-Principle Approval7 are non-binding. After arriving in Singapore, the workers have no control over salary given that the employer is able to send the man home at any time. When caught in this inherently disadvantaged position and with no leverage to negotiate with the employer, filing a claim for a small injury may seem like the only recourse to a heavily indebted worker. A worker’s sole intention when he sets foot in Singapore is to realise that work opportunity he has paid for, to be fairly paid for that work and to return home having benefitted his family from his endeavors.
- Men who participate in TCRP are also eligible for case assistance, referrals to a free medical clinic, EZ Link cards, volunteer escort to hospital visits, emergency medical help, and distributions of donated toiletries and clothing.
- The Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) requires employers to provide medical treatment workplace injuries, pay medical leave wages for up to one year, and compensate workers for any permanent incapacity. While the validity of the claim is under investigation, the employer is not required to provide these benefits.
- At any time, between 5-10 men attending the meal program have been waiting more than 2 years for the conclusion of their work injury claim.
- TWC2’s study of debt repayment shows that it takes an average of 17.5 months to repay the recruitment fees. The Asia Research Institute study of 2014 shows 16.5 months. Bangladeshi men who’ve worked for many years in Singapore estimate that 90% of the men from Bangladesh aren’t able to repay the debt incurred from the first job.
- Hiring a new worker may also benefit the employer financially since the system of kickbacks from new workers to middle men and employers is widespread, although illegal.
- The MOM received over 18,000 incident reports in 2014 (based on our records of work injury reference numbers). The employer must file an incident report when the injured worker must remain in hospital for at least 24 hours, or receives 3 or more days of medical leave.
- In-Principle Approval (IPA) is a paper presented to the worker before his departure from his home country that shows the employer and basic terms of the job. Most men take this as evidence of their basic salary agreement, but the employer is not bound to these amounts.