By Gek Han
In sixteen years of working in Singapore, Islam Aminur has been diligent and careful, working without an accident. But luck turned against him in December 2015. A heavy, 20kg block of metal fell on his thumb, necessitating surgery at the National University Hospital (NUH). Aminur was given 25 days medical leave (“MC”). Following procedure, he submitted the MC to the management. When the 25 days came to an end, he returned to work.
At the back of his mind, he knew there was something about “insurance compensation” that he should be getting, but he heard nothing. In February 2016, he approached his manager about this.
To Aminur’s surprise, the manager became angry and said, “Don’t talk like this. You go.” Aminur did not dare to raise the issue again for fear of being sacked.
There were soon murmurs about the company planning to send him back to Bangladesh. In any case, the manager’s reaction showed that Aminur’s trust in the company had been betrayed. Thinking it better to keep some distance between himself and the company lest managers decide on abrupt action, Aminur moved out of the company’s accommodation.
Through a friend’s recommendation, he sought out a lawyer for help in claiming the insurance compensation.
Under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) and the mandatory insurance that employers must buy, three main protections are accorded to workers who have suffered a workplace injury:
(a) Treatment — paid for by the employer, who can then claim reimbursement from the insurer for medical and hospitalization bills;
(b) Medical leave wages — also paid by the employer, with reimbursement from insurer;
(c) Disability compensation, should the accident leave the worker with a degree of permanent incapacity — paid directly from the insurance company to the worker.
According to Aminur, over the days and weeks that followed, he discovered something curious: The company had activated the insurance claim, and was seeking reimbursement for the treatment expenses incurred. Yet the company strongly resisted his enquiry about disability compensation, which should come out of the same policy. Why claim for one and not claim for the other?
It is not clear why. Might the compensation component increase future insurance premiums payable by the company?
As for getting his medical leave wages, his lawyer asked him to produce the MC in support of his claim. However, Aminur, then fully trusting his employer, had sent it in without keeping a copy. When he asked the company for it, the manager denied having received it, Aminur explains to me.
Aminur had to pay $30 to NUH to get another copy of the MC.
A TWC2 senior volunteer noted that it is common for companies to conveniently claim that they have never received MCs, and workers are penalized to pay out of their own pocket for another copy of the document that the companies have either lost or destroyed.
When the manager received notification from the insurance company that Aminur (through his lawyer) had filed a claim under WICA, Aminur’s work permit was immediately cancelled. They didn’t even tell him. Aminur only found out about the cancellation when he was at MOM processing his injury claim. Cancelling the work permit without telling him puts him at risk of being an inadvertent overstayer. He could be arrested though no fault of his own.
He is now unemployed, hoping for a quick resolution of the claim. He is legally in Singapore, by grace of MOM’s Special Pass, but this pass does not allow him to work.
A simple case of an insurance compensation claim leads to disproportionately serious consequences for Aminur. His is apparently a common tale.
WICA isn’t meant to work this way, another senior volunteer with TWC2 explains to me. As a no-fault process, it does not point fingers at whose fault it was that an accident occurred, and the provision for insurance to pay out should mean that employers are not out of pocket for the expenses incurred. There is no need to turn antagonistic. By proper proceedings, the injured worker should continue to be an employee, and return to work as soon as he is able to, even while the claim is being assessed.
Clearly, this was not how things unfolded in Aminur’s case. Why was the manager antagonized by Aminur’s claiming compensation from the insurance company? Was Aminur’s work permit cancelled because the manager felt threatened by workers who know their rights, or because the manager wanted to warn other employees to not question authority?