By Liang Lei, based on an interview in December 2017

What is the role of a lawyer? While we struggle to form an encompassing definition of the profession, our foreign workers seem to have a fixed perception of them as their all-knowing protector. At TWC2, the vast majority of injured workers would already have engaged lawyers by the time they come to us.

Ideally, clients should be actively engaged with their lawyers in pursuing their cases, but when a case is actually proceeding under the Ministry of Manpower’s Work Injury Compensation Act (Wica), rarely is there anything for lawyers to do. Even though MOM advises workers that they do not need lawyers through the Wica process, most workers still feel more secure having a lawyer at hand. However, a passive dependence on lawyers can sometimes prove risky or detrimental, as we would see in Raman Mohanraj’s story.

Mohan, as he prefers to be called, arrived in Singapore in late 2017 for his second construction stint here. However, barely a week after starting work, he had his left thumb clipped by a spinning fan while at work. At our interview, Mohan’s thumb was visibly scarred and swollen, and could barely move at the joints. Just two days after his injury, Mohan’s work permit was cancelled. He says he heard something about possible repatriation to India, but it’s not entirely clear how much of this was explicitly said to him or how much was his own fears speaking.

Nevertheless, feeling very apprehensive about events spiralling out of control, and on the advice of his friends, Mohan engaged a lawyer. In TWC2’s experience, workers are seldom able to articulate exactly why they choose to engage lawyers. At best, they say that it is to claim compensation, but the circumstances that lead them to seek out lawyers often relate more to protection from repatriation. Mohan is no exception.

In any case, Mohan spoke not to the lawyer, but to the legal assistant. That too is typical. The actual practising lawyers of the firms so beloved by migrant workers rarely even meet their clients. Almost everything is done by a legal assistant who plays multiple roles: as tout, assurance-giver and paperwork clerk. Best of all, the legal assistant comes from the same home country and speaks the worker’s native language. For all practical purposes, the worker thinks of him as a ‘lawyer’, even though the legal assistant is not qualified to be one.

Coming back to Mohan’s story, his ‘lawyer’ filed a work injury case with the Ministry of Manpower, but soon after has had to help Mohan over a hospital payment issue.

Probably frustrated that his newest worker was out of action so soon, Mohan’s employer failed to pay for anything more than his initial hospital visit and the dressing of his wound. This Mohan learned from the hospital receptionist when he showed up for his subsequent physiotherapy session. The receptionist said the hospital would not be providing physiotherapy unless unpaid bills from earlier visits were first paid.

It’s too early to say how this will be resolved. Employers are responsible for the costs of medical treatment, but what leverage does a lawyer have if the employer drags his feet?

This is where, from my third-party perspective,  it becomes evident that something is amiss in their working relationship. Instead of actively expressing his wishes and taking control of his own case, Mohan is content with being agreeable and letting the lawyer take the initiative and lead him through the bureaucratic process.

The greatest risk in Mohan’s passive reliance on his lawyer lies in his contract with the lawyer itself. When I ask Mohan how much his lawyer will charge him for services rendered, I get a surprising answer, “Don’t know”. Mohan roughly understands that lawyers would usually take a portion of their client’s compensation money should their case be successful, and through hearsay from others, has come to understand that his lawyer usually takes about eighteen percent of the amount. Not only is this way higher than the de-facto “standard” of ten percent other foreign workers have been telling us, the fact that a figure has not been settled right at the start puts Mohan in a less secure footing with his compensation money. This problem is further compounded by the fact that should Mohan’s compensation claim be successful, the cheque would be mailed to Mohan’s lawyer — thus giving Mohan even less control over his own money.

Is Mohan’s case a stand-alone? After our interview, I ask another passing foreign worker if he has a lawyer. “Yes”, comes the confident reply.

“How much you pay lawyer?” I venture.

“I don’t know…ten percent?”

Two cases certainly don’t make a trend. However, it remains a fact that hiring a lawyer is a very popular action foreign workers take the moment they find themselves dealing with injury. As such, it is definitely necessary to ensure that the workers know how to work with the lawyer, instead of passively going with the flow.

Taking a further step back, there also seems to be a lack of awareness as to when a lawyer is really required. When discussing this issue with Alex, a senior member of TWC2, he reflects that other than when a case has escalated to court, there are few instances where a trained social worker cannot replace a lawyer in providing consultation and communication with hospitals and authorities for foreign workers in trouble — a service which TWC2 provides free of charge .

How, then, do we empower our foreign workers to take a greater stand for themselves, to avoid paying a big portion of their compensation money for what is not really a necessary service? Unfortunately, it’s not a question anyone knows the answer to.