One of the major themes when analysing the current crisis of neoliberal capitalism is the way economic rent has run amuck, exacerbating the rich-poor divide. Economic rent is the profit extracted by a party who has access to a resource that others do not have and which others feel they need. That party does not have to do work, yet is able to exact a price and turn a profit.
This story takes a microscope to how economic rent is extracted from a foreign worker who has suffered an injury. In this case, the party profitting was someone claiming to be a ‘lawyer’ though he actually wasn’t.
Mondol Samiron fell about 1.5 metres while working in a shipyard, on 17 November 2015. Sharp pain shot up from his back immediately. He was taken to a doctor in a small clinic, who gave him some painkillers and two days of medical leave.
After those two days had passed, the boss insisted that he return to work — which was not unreasonable if going by his medical leave document. However, Mondol said pain was persisting and requested to go see the doctor again. There was great resistance on the employer’s part to accede to this request. Unhappy, Mondol made his own way to Singapore General Hospital, which took the matter more seriously, did more tests, and prescribed over twenty days of medical leave and additional medication.
Mondol knew that taking his own initiative to seek out a hospital and getting so much medical leave would meet with his employer’s furious disapproval. He had also heard from the grapevine about employers hiring repatriation agents who would come and seize workers from dorms to rush them to the airport and out of the country. He calculated that this was a real risk in his case, and began making preparations to quit the dorm as soon as practicable.
He had also heard that injuries should be reported to the Ministry of Manpower. So towards the end of November, he made his way to the ministry to lodge a report. But what should the next step be? Could, or would, the ministry protect him from deportation by the employer? Would he be paid for his medical leave? How was he to obtain continuing treatment?
In talking to us at TWC2, Mondol gave us the impression that he felt very unsure of these issues despite having been to the ministry. Perhaps he himself never raised these questions while there; perhaps he did but was not given clear answers, or officials’ assurances got lost in the translation. His English was not fluent enough to express why he remained so uncertain.
After lodging the injury report, Mondol continued to ask around among his friends, hoping to get a clearer picture of what would happen next. The only useful advice — at least it seemed useful at the time — was to seek out a lawyer who knew how to keep an eye on such cases and could help him. A friend even had a name and number he could call: a man named Alom.
Mondol called, and Alom said to come to his office. There, Alom handed Mondol a namecard with a law firm’s name (Crossborders), but the office wasn’t the law firm’s. It was Alom’s own office. There is no suggestion here that Alom was misrepresenting himself; by all accounts, Alom was genuinely representing the firm, but it shows us how these things work. Alom was not a lawyer himself, but a kind of salesperson getting business for the firm with an independent office. Eventually, should Mondol get compensation for any permanent disability, the firm would take a percentage cut of it. What Alom’s own share would be is unknown.
Nonetheless, Mondol felt better. Now he had someone to look after his interests, someone who knew the system and who would be able to get answers from the authorities when he himself, a lowly manual labourer, would not.
The test of his assumption came a few months later. The employer disputed the validity of the injury claim lodged by Mondol at the ministry and refused to provide needed treatment. In particular, the hospital’s request for a Letter of Guarantee so that a scan of the lower back could be done — for better diagnosis — was refused by the company.
Mondol went to Alom to seek help to resolve this impasse. Alom told him that if the employer refused, there was nothing that could be done.
Now, Mondol turned to TWC2. He had been taking meals with our Cuff Road Project since he quit the dorm late 2015, but as he had legal representation in the initial months, we did not involve ourselves in his case. Upon this new development, with him unhappy with and ready to discharge the law firm, our caseworkers and volunteers got involved.
We helped him organise his evidence that an accident really occurred and spoke with his doctors about the needed treatment. The ministry was persuaded that the company’s denial was unfounded and ordered the employer to provide the Letter of Guarantee as requested. At the time of writing, Mondol’s case is still ongoing, but at least it is possible, with a scan, to determine the extent of injury.
“In all this while, I never once went to the law firm’s proper office,” says Mondol in Bengali. “I have never met the actual lawyer who was supposed to represent me.”
“There was only Alom — who didn’t do anything.”
This is an example of an economic rentier — someone who extracts profit from his control of or access to a resource. In this case, the resource is knowledge of the system, and springing from that, the illusion of protection and assistance that can be offered to workers like Mondol. Law firms and representatives of such firms — who don’t need to be qualified lawyers themselves — can profit handsomely in this way, taking a percentage of workers’ injury compensation while doing very little or nothing at all.
This inequitable state of affairs thrives because migrant workers suffer from many social disadvantages, e.g. their unfamiliarity with systems and processes, and their poor command of English. One can either try to overcome these disadvantages by providing generous dollops of free information and assistance, but which ministry officials might have failed to do or ensure, thus leaving Mondol as worried as ever despite having filed an injury report, or one can exploit these disadvantages to make a profit.
When a State, however unintentional, leaves gaps unattended to, rentiers rush in.