Suriakumar Ridgeway Ramaiah, will be serving jailtime for failing to pay injury compensation to a worker. Strictly speaking, the sole proprietor of Ridgeway Marine and Construction, was fined $21,000 on 16 November 2016 for failing to buy work injury insurance for his workers, and for not paying compensation when so ordered, but having defaulted on these, he was sent to prison. This was reported by the Straits Times on 28 December 2017 (Link to article). The story mentioned that another employer, Valiancy Enterprise, was similarly fined $20,000 after it pleaded guilty to one count of non-payment of compensation and five counts of non-insurance on 7 November.

In the case of Ridgeway, the injured worker was Sujan Ahmed, who had come to TWC2 for help. Our records indicate that Sujan, a CCTV worker, started work with Ridgeway in or around June 2014 and was injured on 30 May 2015. His injuries did not fully heal and he was left with permanent disability. For that, MOM’s work injury process awarded him compensation of over $11,000. This award was finalised in November 2016.

However, as reported by the Straits Times,

Suriakumar did not buy insurance for 11 employees, including Mr Sujan, at the time of the accident.

Suriakumar was fined $21,000 and barred from applying and renewing work permits for six months. He was also sentenced to 120 days in jail as he had defaulted on the fine and worker compensation.

Sujan’s story was highlighted earlier by the Straits Times in a story dated 23 January 2017. (Link to story on AsiaOne site). There, it was reported that the employer had paid Sujan only $2,480 of the compensation owed, leaving over $9,000 unpaid.

In February 2017, donation portal teamed up with TWC2 to raise funds to help Sujan start a new life after his return to Bangladesh. We managed to raise $7,000 for him. He left for home very soon after. He told us he was planning to set up his own CCTV business in Bangladesh with the donations raised.

Nevertheless, questions remain

While it is good to know that employers who fail to buy work injury insurance to cover their liabilities are taken to task, this case reflects some other gaps which the Straits Times story does not touch on.

Firstly, if not for TWC2 and jumping in to help Sujan, with the generous support of wellwishers among the public, he would have been left with no money at all. MOM does not have any contingency plan for such situations.

That said, the Straits Times story had this sentence:

Mr Sujan will receive an ex-gratia payment from the Workers’ Fund run by MOM for his work injury claim.

It comes across as rather strange because it is written in the future tense. Sujan’s plight was known to MOM from as far back as November 2016; in any case he has gone back home long ago. Whilst the proposed amount for the ex-gratia payment is not stated, TWC2’s observation from other cases is that it is often below $2,000. If this is the sum contemplated, it would be a far cry from the compensation due to him.

Backstop Fund

TWC2 has long proposed to MOM that a more systematic process is needed. Moreover, it should be a process that does not let the employer off the hook. We have proposed that a “Backstop Fund” be set up. The Backstop Fund could deal with situations such as this where the Fund would first pay out to the worker the compensation amount in full, and at the same time buy over Sujan’s rightful claim on his employer. This way, the Backstop Fund can pursue reimbursement from the employer, through bankruptcy proceedings if need be, however long it takes. A foreign worker would not be able to do this: he would not be able to stay on in Singapore to pursue his rights, nor would he have the means to hire lawyers, etc, to pursue bankruptcy proceedings. A Backstop Fund, on the other hand, can.

However, another gap must also be rectified before a Backstop Fund can work properly. There is a little-noticed Section 40(3) of the Work Injury Compensation Act, which effectively says that the awarded compensation “shall cease to be payable if the person convicted under that subsection has served a default sentence of imprisonment in relation to that amount.” In Sujan’s case, this means that, even if he had the means to pursue recovery of monies due, or even if a Backstop Fund were doing it in lieu, the boss is no longer liable for the unpaid $9,000 once he has served his time in jail. This even if MOM lifts its ban on hiring more foreign workers and Suriakumar’s business is revived with sufficient cashflow. The employer’s debt to Sujan will have been extinguished. Sujan still loses out.

This does not sound fair.

What is MOM’s responsibility?

The third element that is food for thought arises from the fact that MOM’s Work Permit issuance process is supposed to include verification that an employer has purchased work injury insurance. Was this checked in or around June 2014 when Ridgeway applied for a Work Permit for Sujan? If so, how is it that not quite a year later, in May 2015 when the accident occurred, Ridgeway had no insurance cover?