By Liang Lei, based on an interview in May 2018

Received unexpectedly dismal scores for an assessment? Appeal.

Although this “survival tactic” for examinations seems to transcend cultures, the consequences can vary drastically from one situation to another. In the case of a foreign worker’s Permanent Incapacity Compensation score, a hasty decision to appeal may well result in great uncertainty and financial stress.

Luckily, such a situation did not play out in this story; Hossain Imam changed his mind to take a more sober course of action in the nick of time. However, a conversation with him reveals how a mix of false hope, hesitant trust and bureaucratic rigidity can confuse a foreign worker and cloud his decision-making. They may sometimes make choices in a fog of misinformation and faulty assumptions.

Unhappy with disability compensation amount

After a falling metal pipe crushed his right thumb at work in December 2017, Imam engaged a lawyer to assist in his permanent incapacity claims under the Work Injury Compensation Act.

If Imam was found to have suffered an irreversible injury that affects his way of life, he would be able to receive monetary compensation for it. The process involves a medical assessment wherein a doctor would provide a Permanent Incapacity (PI) “score”, based on the injury’s severity against a reference list (the cover of the booklet is shown in the header pic). This list states quite clearly how many ‘points’ various sorts of disabilities deserve.

The Ministry of Manpower would then calculate the compensation amount based on this score, multiplied by the worker’s earning potential, which itself is a combination of age and average income.

“They say this [injury] is three to seven points,” Imam recounts of his meeting with the legal team when he first met them in January 2018, while showing me his swollen right thumb. “Very pain, cannot write,” he adds.

TWC2 cannot help but be skeptical how any non-medical professional can, at that very early stage of his recovery process (barely a month after the accident), make any determination of what permanent disability might follow.

Therefore, when Imam received his official result of two points in March 2018, he was shocked.

Imam’s result entitled him to slightly over $5,000 in compensation, while a three-point score — the minimum he had been led to expect — would have translated to over $7,500. After discussion with the legal team, he decided to reject his score and seek re-assessment for his thumb, hoping that a more sympathetic doctor would give him more ‘points’.

He does not realise that doctors use an objective reference list.

However, in a surprising turn of events, Imam withdrew his rejection of his PI score just one week later. Even more surprisingly, he took this decision not because he learned that doctors would use an objective reference list — and were therefore unlikely to give him a different score — but because “My friend say cannot come back to Singapore” as penalty for rejecting the initial score.

Being able to return to Singapore for work is absolutely critical. There’s no other way to earn an equivalent wage in Bangladesh. Moreover, he has had no income for some time since the accident. The family is in a financial hole.

But is it true that anyone who sought re-assessment would be forever barred from returning here to work?

“How your friend know?” I press. Imam replies that his friend heard from another friend who experienced such a situation.

It’s just not true. Singapore’s bureaucracy can be punitive, but not in such a case.

Nevertheless, viewed from a larger perspective, withdrawing his objection to the PI score will probably turn out to be a good move on Imam’s part. An appointment for re-assessment might have been months away. Imam would have had to stay in Singapore without employment, a delay he could ill afford. Any increase in compensation resulting from a re-assessment — no sure thing — would be cancelled out by the opportunity cost of a longer stay.

Underlying concerns

“Here we have a case which went relatively well. Treatment and claim went smoothly, the company is not standing in the way of his injury compensation, and there wasn’t much delay despite the PI score rejection and subsequent withdrawal,” muses Alex, a senior member of TWC2, after the interview with Imam. “However, we have a man here who seems dissatisfied, lost, unsure and with reason for distrust,” he adds.

While false hope was clearly at play, other subjective factors could be lurking too in this case. Could there have been a “casino effect” of attempting to push luck just that slightly further, without knowing about the possible consequences?

Or is it institutional distrust, given Imam’s penchant for seeking second opinions from his friends after getting advice from organisations? A social worker from TWC2 confirms that Imam has sought information from friends before, complicating and contradicting professional advice from TWC2.

Says Alex: “That’s why in social work, we go beyond the objective to understand subjective perception: why does he see problems where we don’t?”

“In the larger picture, it’s an issue of how we can better raise awareness among foreign workers that processes and systems in Singapore are a certain way. We need to be cognisant that they come with very different ideas of how things work.”

He can’t help but add: “One criticism we make all the time about many officials in MOM is that there is a lack of cultural sensitivity, and very little interest in trying to see things from workers’ perspective.”


Further complications

Overhearing a bit of the conversation between Imam and the social worker, we discover a new hiccup.

When Imam decided to withdraw his objection to the PI score, he also decided that he had no further need for a lawyer. He discharged the law firm. But he cannot recall whether he informed his former employer about it.

If the company doesn’t know that he has discharged his legal representation, then the compensation cheque will likely be sent to the law firm — which will be tricky. Imam is advised to sort this out as quickly as possible before the cheque is prepared.

Besides unfamiliarity with bureaucratic red-tape, misleading information from friends, a desperation for more money, there is also the matter of discovering and solving problems at the last minute.  It’s taxing on all concerned.