By Philomène Franssen, based on an interview in September 2017

One thousand dollars is what Azizul received from his employer seven months after the June 2016 accident that took place at his work site. It was supposed to be his medical leave wages, but since he was on medical leave (“MC”) for those seven months, it does not appear to be the correct amount.

The accident left him with a broken arm and wrist. As I meet Azizul at dinner this Friday, he is into his fifteenth month without a job and salary. His medical leave ended eight months ago and he has since been fit to work. That would have been ample time to look for another job and get back to paid employment, thus being able to provide for his family in Bangladesh.

For the last fourteen years that Azizul has been working in Singapore he has been sending between $800 to $900 every month to his widowed mother, wife, sister and brother. They rely on his remittances to survive. But since that morning at work when he fell off the bicycle that the boss had required all employees to ride because “like this can go fast, no lose time, boss said”, Azizul hasn’t been able to provide for them. At large worksites, the bicycle is often the means for getting from one point to another.

After being refused care in the first hospital (Admiralty Medical Center) where Azizul was taken by the safety officer in the company’s lorry that day, they went to a second doctor (Jurong) where an X-ray confirmed the fracture of his right arm and wrist. But there “boss said no give MC,” recounts Azizul. Many employers try to influence doctors against issuing medical leave. “Just take pill and sleep” was what the boss next said. So it was with just this prescription that Azizul walked out that day.

But the pain prevented him from sleeping at night, so the next morning he took himself to a third doctor (Changi General Hospital  — from his TWC2 case notes) where he was given 22 days of MC. At subsequent medical appointments this was extended to seven months in total, time for him to recover from the fracture.

The Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) stipulates that the employer is responsible for paying the medical leave wages as well as the medical bills. The employer should also provide accommodation during the time of his recovery. Azizul should have been confident that there would be no other troubles for him other than a plaster cast on his arm. The law also provides a formula for determining the amount of MC wages. Based on TWC2’s experience, $1,000 for all seven months does not sound correct.

After visiting the third hospital, Azizul presented his employer with the Medical Leave certificate. The reaction he got was: “No MC. You go back to Bangladesh”. The company was laying down its rule that it would not recognise MCs, and by being so brazen as to get one on his own, Azizul would pay the price — repatriated to Bangladesh forthwith.

Azizul approached a lawyer, and subsequently MOM, to assist him with his case.

Inevitably, Azizul lost his job a few days later and was put on a Special Pass. This pass only allows him to remain in Singapore to wait for his case to be resolved but forbids him from working. The wait feels endless.

Azizul is one of many workers seen at TWC2’Cuff Road Project who have been confronted with employers for whom delaying the resolution of the case costs absolutely nothing, while it takes a heavy toll on the their lives and their families.

One is left perplexed how the current system fails to provide any social safety net to workers like Azizul. Rather, it expects them to survive without any livelihood for undetermined periods of time. If not for help received from his uncle, who is also a worker in Singapore, and the family’s neighbours in Bangladesh, Azizul tells me, “I sleep outside and family no eat”.

The key issue in this story is that Azizul’s recovery took about seven months, yet his case has dragged into his fifteenth month. This suggests that there is a flaw in MOM’s case handling system.

TWC2 is not managing Azizul’s case; we’re only providing him free meals from our Cuff Road Project. Azizul has a lawyer. Consequently,  we’re not fully informed as to what is happening in his case except through what he is telling us. Based on that, including details left out of the story for the sake of length, it appears that the employer is disputing that the injury was work-related at all.

Employers should have a right to point out that an injury claim was not work-related if they wish to do so, but there should be a time bar to when this right can be exercised. It is inherently unjust to allow employers to dispute validity a year or more after the accident. By that time, fellow workers who could have been witnesses for the injured worker might have left their jobs and gone home. Memory may fail. Other sorts of evidence, like documents and reports, might have gotten lost.

TWC2 has long proposed to MOM that once an injury claim is commenced, there should be a limited period in which the employer can dispute validity, e.g. a month. If the employer lodges a challenge, MOM must carry out an investigation and make a determination whether or not the accident was work-related within, say, two more months. What’s the point of delaying this exercise until over a year later when evidence and witnesses might have vanished?

If our proposals had been adopted, workers like Azizul would not have to continue waiting, penniless and forbidden to work, well beyond his physical recovery.