Muslem Motalb will always remember Transient Workers Count Too fondly. “I [will] never forget TWC2,” he told us in the days before he went home. “Many people in TWC2 help me so much.”

We’ll tell the story here of what we did to help bring his case to a successful conclusion.

It took almost a year to conclude his injury compensation claim. For the first six months, he thought he could leave it to the company to get whatever was due to him from the insurer. Many injured workers feel the same way. They think the process is too complicated, involving too much English-language paperwork for them to handle on their own. So they rationalise to themselves that “company will take care” of it.

Eventually, when they realise that nothing of the sort is going to happen, they’re left at a complete loss.


Leaving it to the employer

Muslem’s accident occurred on 23 February 2015 at the shipyard where he worked. Around midday, he was unloading pipe fittings when the cargo slipped and hit him on his left knee.

He first visited the shipyard medical centre where he was given some pain-suppressing ointment and pills, but when his condition didn’t improve, he was sent to West Point Hospital on 2 March, eight days later. His sense was that he was getting the treatment he needed (even if the injury didn’t heal quickly) and had no reason not to trust the employer to do what was right for him — including filing for compensation.

Some months later, there were signs that his faith in his employer might be misplaced. At one medical follow-up, he learnt from the attending doctor that his supervisor and manager were alleging that he fell in his dorm room and that his knee injury was not work-related.

Such allegations are frequently made. Supervisors and managers take advantage of the fact that most foreign workers have a poor command of English. Instead of letting the worker speak to the doctor, the supervisor or manager does the talking. Then it becomes very easy to concoct a story that absolves the company of responsibility and this story becomes part of the medical record.

The second sign was so troubling, it propelled him to action. In July, a doctor at West Point Hospital explained that he really needed an operation to repair the knee — he had suffered a meniscus tear — but the company was planning to repatriate him instead. His treatment would be short-circuited and he’d be left with no compensation. The doctor advised him to lodge an injury claim at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) forthwith.


Eighteen points but employer objects

Armed with a helpful note from the hospital’s doctor, Muslem Motalb finally found the self-confidence to go to MOM to make a report about his accident and injury.  Again he placed his trust in others — this time the ministry officials — and thought that all would go smoothly.

So it seemed — for a while. In October, he received a preliminary Notice of Assessment from MOM that said he would be given “18 points”—which amounted to $25,758.14 — for permanent disability. The damage to the knee thus seemed quite serious.

In November, he learnt that the employer was objecting to the Notice of Assessment and saying that his injury was not the result of a workplace accident. Faced with this conflicting account, his MOM case officer kicked the case up to the Labour Court for a determination to be made on this question of fact.

muslem_motalb_nolawyerStunned, Muslem asked around some more and found out about TWC2. He came to us, saying “MOM not help me.” He felt betrayed again. Once more he saw himself powerless against bigger forces with no clue how to assert his rights.


Zeroing in on the crux of the matter

TWC2 social workers and a team of volunteers swung into action, spending hours with him figuring out the chronology of events and making sense of the various pieces of paper he had. Much patience was needed as Muslem’s English was poor. That said, by the time he was interviewed by this writer near the end of the process, he was rattling off his story in broken English. It was interesting to see how, in his two months with TWC2, he had jettisoned much of his self-consciousness about language. He probably noticed that we’re very understanding and patient about language; we’re not judgemental, and give all workers we meet the dignity they deserve.

Looking through his papers, there appeared to be a gap in documentation. Muslem said he suffered the accident on 23 February 2015, but the earliest medical mention was on a West Point Hospital note, indicating that he saw a doctor there on 2 March. Could this be the basis for the employer denying that there was a work accident on 23 February?

We arranged to meet with his boss. We didn’t come out of that meeting much clearer about what his position was. Our sense was that the employer very much wanted to avoid admitting that there ever was a work accident at his site. He said he was possibly prepared to pay some reimbursement of medical expenses to Muslem, but that it should come out of his general insurance, not his work injury insurance.

It didn’t make sense to us. It was not as if he hadn’t bought work injury insurance; he had. He wouldn’t be out of pocket if he paid the compensation indicated by MOM.

In TWC2’s experience, many employers do not want to admit that a work accident happened. We’re not clear what their motives are, but there may be concerns about work safety inspections or demerit points. It was a possibility in this case too, but we could only speculate.

More generally, our sense was that the boss’ objection to the Notice of Assessment was not entirely fact-driven.

Here again, it reminded us of other experiences. We have met with employers who seemed to be emotion-driven: the very idea of a lowly worker bringing a claim against them is repugnant; they would do anything to re-assert their dominance. Very often when people act emotionally, their position can be incongruent with the facts.


Yet other explanations were possible. Perhaps the boss was not personally acquainted with a detailed history of the case. Perhaps he was simply not informed that something happened on 23 February, and upon this lack of information, assumed that nothing did.

There was also some mention in the doctor’s notes that the boss was arguing that since there was no externally visible injury, there couldn’t have been an injury. This seemed more like clutching at straws to deny that an accident had occurred.

Nonetheless, we noted that the boss left the door open to some payment. However, we wouldn’t be acting in a worker’s best interest if we merely sought a compromise. Under Singapore law, Muslem Motalb was entitled to the total amount that the Notice of Assessment granted him.


Getting the evidence

When a party objects to a Notice of Assessment, the burden of proof lies with that party to show why his objection should stand. Otherwise, the benefit of doubt will be given to the worker who has MOM’s assessment in his favour. Since the employer’s objection was formally based on the counterclaim that Muslem did not injure himself at the worksite on 23 February, the counterclaim had to be persuasive. It would not succeed if Muslem could show some evidence that there was an incident on that day..

Could we help Muslem do that?

We sat down with Muslem for a few hours again, this time going through the events of 23 February with a fine-tooth comb. He reiterated that the accident happened about midday and that he was brought promptly to the shipyard’s medical centre. There was no doctor in attendance at the time, but a nurse or paramedic gave him some ointment and “medicine”.

We telephoned the medical centre. They confirmed that they had a record of his visit at 1:05 pm on 23 February 2015 and the medication given. This should establish clearly that although the first doctor’s record (at West Point Hospital) was dated 2 March, the incident occured eight days earlier.

In the next meeting with the boss, we told him that we had this evidence that would disprove his claim that no incident occurred on 23 February.

After thinking about it for a few days, the employer withdrew his objection to the Notice of Assessment. The Labour Court then confirmed the award of 18 points to Muslem Motalb. For the first time, we saw him smile.


Not only the compensation

There followed a few more details. Muslem had paid for several medical appointments himself. The company, alleging that he was being untruthful about the accident, had not paid for those appointments and treatment. Moreover, Muslem had months of medical leave, and under the law, the employer had to pay medical leave wages, too. More sessions with Muslem followed, this time with calculators and Excel sheets. A total was compiled and Muslem was paid.


What about the operation that he needed for his knee? TWC2 began to plan for this and how we could assist him through the recovery period when he wouldn’t be able to walk.. In the end, Muslem decided that it would be better to have the operation back home in Bangladesh where he’d have his family to care for him while he recuperated.

Now different volunteers pitched in — this time from TWC2’s Road to Recovery team. They helped Muslem get a complete set of medical reports, x-rays and scans from the hospitals and clinics he had visited during the past months. These will be helpful to doctors in Bangladesh when treating him.

Muslem flew home in early February 2016. “Take picture me and all TWC2 people,” was his one last and happy request.