By Aaron Chua, based on an interview in December 2017

Just look at this!”, Alex exclaims, holding up one of the meal cards that are issued by TWC2 to workers in need.

The surprise: The date of injury — 20 September 2016. It has been 15 months since.

The card belongs to Hossain Muhammad Arif, the man standing beside him. Unlike many of the weary workers we see who are anxiously awaiting the outcome of their various problems, Arif is smiling.

I repeat the year of his injury to him, still not quite convinced the scribble on the card wasn’t a mistake.

“Yes.” Arif cheerily replies.

“I go home this week,” he adds.

After many months spent waiting for his Work Injury Compensation claim (“WICA claim”) to be processed, he has chosen to withdraw it. Instead, he has initiated a civil law claim on the employer via the courts through a lawyer.

Unlike a WICA claim that disallows the worker from working or leaving Singapore, a worker is free to return to his home country and find a job there while the civil law claim is underway.

The time frame for work injury compensations, according to MOM’s website, is supposed to be just “3 to 6 months for most cases”, with some injuries “[needing] more time to stabilise before a doctor can assess for permanent incapacity.” For Arif, that time has stretched for more than 15 jobless months. It is little surprise then, that Arif is eager to finally go home.

Nevertheless, I decided to investigate his case further. Why did his WICA claim take so long? And, more importantly, how did he manage to get by during this period?

Arif winces as he relives his career-destroying moment.

“I lift rebar” — reinforcement steel bars — “then back side injured” Arif recalls, as he leans forward and places his hand on his lower back to indicate where he had sustained his injury.

He was immediately brought to the hospital, and was issued medical leave by the doctor. But six months after sustaining the injury, he still had not recovered.

Arif then lodged a WICA claim at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). WICA claims are no-fault claims that entitle workers to medical leave wages. Furthermore, workers are entitled to compensation if they are left with a permanent disability despite all treatment.

Around the time he filed the claim, he quit company accommodation. He has been paying for his own bunk ever since. Such a move is ridiculously common. Most workers find that the act of filing an official WICA claim at MOM so enrages the employer that that they no longer feel safe continuing to stay in company accommodation. They fear harassment (to withdraw the claim), assault — it’s been known to happen — and even instant deportation. Better to pay through the nose for a dirty bunk elsewhere than to put life and limb at risk in the company dorm.

That said, nothing in Arif’s story indicates that his employer was about to resort to anything like that. As far as I can tell, the employer has complied with all of MOM’s regulations regarding the handling of his case. Moreover, the employer kept him on a Work Permit until its expiry date, which indicates that the employer was prepared to take him back in the job should he fully recover. In fact, when I ask Arif if there were any problems he faced with his employer during his four-year stint in Singapore, he replies that there has been “no problem. Only injury problem.”

In May 2017, when his Work Permit expired, MOM placed Arif on a Special Pass, which does not permit the holder to work but allows him to continue staying in Singapore until his case is resolved.

More months pass. Though Arif can rely on TWC2’s meal programme for food, the rental costs of $200 per month, in addition to other necessities, add up very quickly.

“Friend give $200, money give $200,” Arif mentions, indicating that he has had to borrow from a friend. For the most past though, Arif is lucky that his brother, who is working in Singapore too, has enough to provide for him and has magnanimously shrugged off the debt. Had Arif or his family back home been compelled to take up a loan, the total debt with interest would have been steadily rising. Over the course of our conversation, we are interrupted twice by phone calls from his brother, whom he is going to meet later. I cannot understand the language, but it is easy to perceive the affection from the bubbly tones and Arif’s happy face.

Arif isn’t the only man to have a WICA case stretch over a year. About ten percent of the thousands of cases that come through TWC2’s meal programme stay more than 12 months awaiting the conclusion of their cases.

The present system of enforced joblessness just because the compensation part of the WICA claim is still pending exacts a very heavy financial toll on workers, who are already stressed out over their injury and loss of the previous job.

While it seems fair enough that a man should not be working if the doctor has ordered medical leave, it becomes unreasonable to continue preventing him from working once he has recovered enough to be taken off medical leave. He should either be allowed to resume his old job, or if his previous employer does not want to take him back, he should be free to take up a new job.

TWC2 submitted such a proposal years ago to MOM. Such a change in policy would be far more equitable in enabling migrant workers to provide for their families as soon as they are well enough.