Based on an interview in April 2018

Despite giving us a broad smile, Rashadul’s life has changed for the worse. For example, his broken knee means he will never be able to squat again. The best he can do now is to kneel on his one good knee, which at least is good enough to allow him to take up employment in construction again.

He can kneel like this

Under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA), he was entitled to compensation of over $23,000 for the permanent disability. He has a letter from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) confirming this. But eleven and a half months after the accident on 1 May 2017, he no longer expects to see all of it. It was a relief when, on 19 April 2018, he got even $5,000 from his former boss.

Through the waiting, Rashadul has been borrowing money from friends to live on. After paying off his debts, the $5,000 is no more than pocket change compared to what he should get. How he’s going to start a new life with that amount is not clear.

This is after he’s mentally written off $3,490 in unpaid salary for March and April 2017, the two months he was working before the accident.

If anyone tries to argue that Singapore has a good system for ensuring justice for workers, Rashadul would make a fine counter example.

A short while before our interview, Rashadul met with his case officer at MOM. According to Rashadul, the officer told him that with or without collecting what was owed, he had to return home to Bangladesh by Friday, 20 April 2018.

Rashadul had previously worked seven years in Singapore with a glass installation company. Then he went home to get married.

In February 2017, he returned to Singapore to start with TW Construction Engineering — which appears to be a sole proprietorship owned by an “Indian boss”, in Rashadul’s words. TW was a manpower supply company, meaning that it did not have construction projects of its own, but merely supplied manpower to contractors who needed extra hands. Rashadul found himself seconded to a glass installation company for the three months that he worked.

Then the accident happened. He hurt his right knee, ankle, foot, and both hands. From the beginning, the boss was delinquent about paying for his medical treatment, which under the law, is clearly the employer’s responsibility. Rashadul estimates he paid about $1,000 for his own treatment.

Meanwhile, there was the matter of the salary claim.

Salary claim

“About twenty workers went to MOM,” says Rashadul. “All have same problem, never received salary.” He was one of the twenty.  MOM arranged for mediation, but no amicable settlement could be reached. The case then went to the Employment Claims Tribunal, where the workers won a court order in their favour. In Rashadul’s case, while he calculated that he was owed $3,490, he accepted the employer’s offer of $3,000 in four installments spaced three weeks apart. The Tribunal issued an order formalising this (see picture below). However, nothing happened thereafter. “Until now, one dollar also not give to me.”

A websearch reveals that TW Construction Engineering (UEN 53196012M) was closed and deregistered on 8 Nov 2017.

Meanwhile too, there was the matter of housing. Even before the accident, Rashadul was not housed in a proper dormitory. He and the other employees were stuffed into a crowded tenement house on Syed Alwi Road. But some time in the third quarter of 2017, the boss stopped paying the rent. To avoid being thrown out onto the streets, Rashadul borrowed money to pay the rent himself. He reckons he’s paid about eight months at $250 per month. Under the law, employers are supposed to be responsible for housing their workers even after the job has ended, all the way to the date of repatriation. But to Rashadul, that is just one more bitter joke to add to a whole series of them.

At least, he could get free meals from TWC2’s Cuff Road Project.

No insurance

As for the work injury compensation, the shocker was that the employer did not purchase work injury insurance. It is mandatory for all employers to do so under the law. How did this slip under MOM’s radar? We asked MOM this and their reply is below.

Not having insurance cover does not absolve the employer of responsibility for paying compensation when so ordered. But if he couldn’t even pay salaries, it’s likely that there isn’t the cash in hand to pay Rashadul over $23,000 for the disability as ordered by MOM.

Rashadul maintained contact with the boss. “Every day I call him,” he tells your interviewer. At some point, the boss suggested he could come up with $8,000, plus whatever was owed to him for medical treatment and medical leave wages. Nothing about the rent though.

Then came the conversation with the MOM officer. Recalling the bad news he received at that meeting, he recounts that “MOM officer tell me: ‘Boss pay or no pay, must go back on Friday. You cannot stay here anymore.'” He was being told that whether or not he received any money, MOM would not permit him to remain in Singapore. “Then officer also say, ‘I give boss punishment, but I cannot help you.'”

What at first looked like a dreadful week as the deadline for repatriation approached suddenly turned better. A wee bit better.

Maybe the MOM officer did make one last try, for on 18 April 2017, the boss said he’d come down to the Syed Alwi Road shophouse later that morning and pass him $5,000. That’s all the money he could give, the boss said. Reluctantly, Rashadul said OK.

The boss didn’t show up.

But a day later, he did show up. “Today, he come,” says a relieved Rashadul, “and give me $5,000.”

The next day, when he went to MOM, he received $1,500 to close the salary case. In his words, “Not boss give salary. Insurance company man give MOM.” This sum would be from the insurer behind the employer’s $5,000 security bond.

And with that, Rashadul went home.

WhatsApp exchange between TWC2 and Rashadul on 20 April 2018


Slipped under the radar

We asked MOM a few questions about this case.

Our understanding from the worker (named in the header) was that the employer did not have work injury insurance in place, and thus could not pay the NOA [Work injury Notice of Assessment] compensation of $23,580. Could you advise:

1.  Is this correct — that there was no Work Injury insurance in place?

2. If so, (a) is MOM planning to prosecute the employer? (b) why was this situation not picked up when the employer applied for a work permit, which was only a few months before the accident?

3. Does MOM routinely check that work insurance insurance is in place before issuing work permits?

4. If so, what form does this check take?

MOM in its reply confirmed that “employer had not bought WIC insurance and did not pay the compensation”, and that the ministry is “investigating” the employer for “multiple offences including non-insurance”.

Our third question was not really answered. As for the fourth question, MOM said it “conducts random checks” on employers to ensure they have purchased work injury insurance, but “[t]he company in this case was not checked.” Sampling for ‘random checks’ can mean anything from one in 20 to one in 10,000 or more.  It’s hard to know how effective that is.

TWC2 followed up by putting a few additional questions to MOM on 9 May 2018. Six weeks on, and up till publication date, we have not received responses to the additional questions.

Backstop fund

However stringent the checks and deterrent measures, there will still be the occasional employer who will flout the rules. In real life, it is not possible to reduce employer delinquency to zero. That still leaves an innocent employee — and someone with a permanent disability too — without a satisfactory solution.

TWC2 has some years back called for the setting up of a Backstop Fund to cater to such situations. The concept is as follows:

  1. When a worker, whether foreign or local, has been awarded a formal Order from a tribunal or court for payment from the employer of money, for reasons of salary arrears, injury compensation, reimbursable expenses, etc,
  2. and the employer is delinquent in payment for more than a set number of weeks after the due date of the Order,
  3. the worker has the option to transfer his rights under the Order to the Backstop Fund.
  4. The Fund purchases his rights for either the face value of the Order, or at a small discount. That way, the worker gets all or most of the payment that is due to him or her without too a lengthy a wait.
  5. Having assumed the rights under the transferred or purchased Orders, the Fund will pursue payment from the delinquent employer for however long it takes — stamina that a worker generally cannot afford. This may include bankruptcy proceedings against the employer and other measures available under the law. Such measures will require legal expertise and may involve upfront costs (recoverable from the employer) which a worker typically would not be able to sustain.

Even so, the Fund may not succeed in recovery of dues in all cases. But despite this, it will represent a far more just solution:

  1. No worker is left on the shelf payment-wise;
  2. Every employer will know that no court or tribunal Order can be ignored; he will be hounded by a body with legal expertise and stamina until he pays up;
  3. No employer of a foreign worker will find it in his interest to delay payment of Orders in the hope that the foreign worker finally gives up, or MOM finally sends him home without receiving payment.

TWC2 has suggested that the Backstop Fund can be funded with a tiny percentage of the Foreign Worker Levy, or through an extra fraction of a percent of the levy.

Rashadul’s case as detailed in this story shows that the need for a Backstop Fund is more than timely.