Text by Jean Law, video by Jonathan Ang

Hossain Monir believes that compensation for his permanent injury was paid out three months ago, but not to him. He is mistaken, but he is not totally wrong either. Indeed, a compensation sum had been offered to him, but he wasn’t informed.

His case shows how difficult it can be for a foreign worker to understand the intricacies of the work injury system, and to access its benefits.

On 11 March 2016, 11.30am, Hossain was atop a scissor lift, working on the industrial lighting for a building, when an overhead crane crashed into his left thigh, fracturing the bone. Bleeding, he was sent to the National University Hospital within a few hours. Two days later, he underwent a seven-hour-long operation to have a 17-inch metal rod implanted into his femur, and was hospitalised for a week.

Hossain believes that without the safety harness attaching him to the scissor lift, he would have lost his life.

But he escaped from the accident far from unscathed. It is obvious to me that his leg is a source of agony. He limps and is heavily reliant on a walking stick for balance. He believes that he has lost his ability to walk normally, let alone run, for a long time. His sleep is regularly interrupted by pain.

When I ask if his leg is hurting at that moment, he responds in the affirmative, describing the pain to be “sometimes okay, sometimes not okay – hot okay, but when it is cooling, not very good”.

Like most workers, Hossain was probably aware — in some vague way — that injury and disability would entitle him to compensation. But unless someone took the trouble to explain the steps of the process to him, he’d have no clue how the system would work, nor the steps he’d have to take, e.g. forms to file.

It doesn’t look like Hossain had anyone to explain these things to him. After the operation and the medical leave period, he was put on Light Duty. He went back to work and the tasks given to him weren’t onerous. The employer appears to have done the right thing.

Says Alex Au, TWC2 Treasurer: “That’s exactly the way it should be. He should continue to earn a salary even if it’s a lengthy recovery.

“But in going back to work, we now have a guy who stayed in his company dorm and who, because of his leg injury, couldn’t find it easy to go places during his free time. He had no access to NGOs like Transient Workers Count Too for advice.”

TWC2’s records show that he didn’t come to us until 4 February 2017.

For eleven months after the accident, Hossain waited and waited for the compensation. Not getting any clarity from the company’s Human Resource Department, he visited the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on 31 January this year, and again on 13 February. What he understood from MOM officials he spoke with was that his injury had been assessed under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) and his percentage of permanent incapacity (“points”) had already been calculated.

And then, as he tells it, “After, [the MOM officer] say, ‘Eh, three months before, your company collect already. But you don’t know, ah?’ ”

“I say ‘I don’t know.’ I also don’t know.”

Hossain seems to have interpreted this to mean that the company (his employer) had collected the money from the insurer. However, the MOM officer was probably referring to something else, e.g. the forms.

But how is a worker to know about the bureaucratic intricacies of filing a claim?

After an accident and evaluation of permanent disability, MOM sends a Notice of Assessment — which details the compensation payable — to the employer, employee and insurer. Since foreign workers do not have their own residential addresses, MOM typically sends the employee’s copy to the employer’s address.

Hossain claims not to have received his copy, leaving him in the dark. Fuelled by the (incorrect) idea that his employer is already holding the money due to him, Hossain is understandably displeased. Calmly, he tells me “no insurance [payout], no answer [from employer]. I not happy.”

He has sought out a lawyer and withdrawn his case from MOM. The lawyer is expected to seek a private settlement with the employer. In the meantime, Hossain intends to return to Bangladesh to start an electrical shop based on the skills he has picked up. He will only return to Singapore when he is able to claim his compensation. For now, his family is financially supported by his first cousin once removed.

Cases similar to Hossain’s are not uncommon in Singapore. For foreign workers like him, the red tape is difficult to understand. Their access to information is restricted. Frustration and misunderstanding compound the problem.