By Liang Lei, based on an interview in October 2017

Running into unexpected trouble overseas is often inconvenient and frustrating – even seasoned travellers among us would readily testify to this. Language barriers, differences in culture and unfamiliarity with foreign administration often confuse us and increase the chances of making mistakes.

It must be incomparably worse when the “trouble” involved is a (literally) bone-shattering injury. Couple that with an unhelpful employer, and it’s really hard to know what it feels like.

While we toil our imagination for answers, the scenario described was exactly what Balakrishnan Karunakaran had to experience. Recuperating from debilitating injuries, tolerating cold treatment from his superiors and very nearly short-changing himself in the administrative labyrinth of injury claims – here’s his story.

Balakrishnan had his left knee and ankle crushed when a 2.5m tall water tank fell on him during construction work in June 2017. He was evacuated to Singapore General Hospital and underwent operations for the broken bones. After discharge from the hospital, he was given three months of MC (medical leave).

On returning from the hospital, Balakrishnan expected to move to a ground-floor room as he could not climb stairs. However, for reasons unknown, he was told to sleep in the company office, where there’d be another worker posted there to assist him through the night. Unfortunately, conflict soon developed between Balakrishnan and this guy over Balakrishnan’s snoring. It escalated to verbal abuse before long.

Things weren’t better in the day, Balakrishnan tells me. He was nicknamed a “baby” by office personnel for being slow and awkward with his crutches. Once, his employer, in a fit of rage, demanded that Balakrishnan “walk normally”. When Balakrishnan failed and his ankle swelled from the strain, another round of expletives followed, this time with threats that he would be sent back to India. Fed up with his abuse and terrified of being repatriated when his medical treatment and physiotherapy was still ongoing, he left the company, filed a case with MOM and engaged a lawyer.

Money matters

Up till this point in the interview, we are speaking about the aftermath of the injury. However, larger problems come into view when I probe further into his work history and touch on money matters. Almost as an aside, Balakrishnan mentions that he has been under-paid regularly.

“By how much?”, I venture, surprised at this revelation.

“Contract $850, but I get only $540.” He is referring to his monthly basic salary.

“How long has this been going on?”

“Every month like that. Two years.” Balakrishnan says that he confronted his employer multiple times about this discrepancy, but was always brushed aside with excuses and false promises.

Now, a sudden change in topic from Balakrishnan’s injury to money matters may seem abrupt, and even inappropriate. It may come across as if I am trivialising Balakrishnan’s suffering to talk about practical issues. However, his financial history is not irrelevant to his current injury claim

Here’s the situation: If Balakrishnan’s injury results in permanent disability, he is entitled to compensation. The amount that will be awarded to him is based on two key factors —  the severity of the disability and his previous earnings. Should Balakrishnan’s ex-company underdeclare his rightful salary, his final compensation amount will be accordingly discounted.

We advise him to sort out this issue before the compensation claim is calculated. Balakrishnan can lodge a complaint with MOM that he was incorrectly paid before the accident. Not only should it establish a proper baseline for the compensation to come, he should recover the difference.

However, MOM has a rule that only claims stretching back up to twelve months from the date of the complaint will be entertained. We point this out to Balakrishnan and stress how it has already affected him.

Balakrishnan stopped working after the accident in June 2017, thus as of now (October 2017), he will only be able to claim for salary short-payment for October 2016 onwards. That’s just seven months out of a much longer period of salary short-payment. The clock continues to tick on this case – the later he makes the claim, the less in arrears he will be able to recover.

Merely making a claim will not solve the problem. The employer will likely deny it and things can get complicated. There’s a long bureaucratic road ahead for him.

To make matters more pressing, every dollar matters to Balakrishnan. Without income and paying for his own physiotherapy sessions — another convoluted story there, but we’ll leave it for now — Balakrishnan is financially at his limit. He is lucky to have a good friend who has offered to pay for their shared accommodation, but he has to skip lunch and rely on TWC2’s Cuff Road food programme for free breakfasts and dinners.

He is the sole breadwinner of a three-generation family, including two young daughters. They know that Balakrishnan is currently recovering from a work injury and hence cannot remit income in the meantime – and that’s all. Balakrishnan has no idea how to inform them of the severity of his injury, nor his current state of limbo.

It’s bittersweet luck that we manage to interview Balakrishnan this evening, and in the process help him refocus his priorities on the salary angle. However, his case hints at a larger, systemic issue. How many other workers are out there being short-paid and not able to do anything about it? To complain is to lose the job — since Singapore law allows employers to terminate workers at will — and then even the partial salary they have been receiving vanishes into thin air. But to stay on month after month without the correct salary is to continue to be shortchanged.

Then when they are injured and compensation is due to them, they don’t even know that the incorrect wages will factor into the compensation they will get, to their considerable disadvantage. This lack of awareness leaves them short-changed once more. But now that he’s been made aware, if Balakrishnan wants to get justice, he has navigate a bureaucratic maze… on crutches.