A purpose-built commercial dormitory – file photo

Bangladeshi worker Rimon (not his real name) received this phone call (audio below) from a case officer of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). As you will hear, the officer was telling Rimon off for not returning to the company dormitory as earlier instructed. As penalty for disobedience, Rimon would be repatriated forthwith.

The tone of voice was completely unprofessional — even if one were to argue that the decision to repatriate him immediately was correct. But as the back story will show, that decision seemed to stem more from being personally peeved with perceived insubordination than from any fair assessment. Immediate repatriation would deny Rimon a proper conclusion of his injury and disability compensation claim.

(Because at the start of the recording, the MOM officer checks with the worker his name, that one second has been replaced by a buzzing sound.)

Rimon fell from height and hurt his back in late 2017. Doctors confirmed a significant injury to his spine and gave him medical leave all the way to 30 June 2018.

He had previously witnessed another worker who was seriously injured, Rimon mentioned to TWC2. He said the company locked this other man in the dormitory for two days and then forcibly repatriated him afterwards (this cannot be independently verified). Rimon didn’t want the same thing to happen to him, so about a month after the accident when he had regained some mobility, he quit the dorm to stay in a shophouse in Little India.

For many months, except for a treatment routine, nothing much happened. The employer didn’t seem to mind that Rimon was staying outside. Then, things took an unexpected turn when, at the beginning of June 2018, MOM called employer and employee together to sort out a key detail that would be needed in order to compute the injury compensation for Rimon. This detail was his average monthly earnings (AME) for the 12 months preceding the accident. The Work Injury Compensation Act contains a formula for determining the amount in compensation, and the AME is one of the factors used in the computation.

According to Rimon, he disagreed with the proposed calculation of the AME. At that point, one or more persons in the room got upset, and a little while later, he was asked where he was staying. Rimon couldn’t be sure who originated the question; it might have been the MOM officer. Rimon said he was staying outside. The MOM officer then told him to move back into the company dorm. As far as we know, the employer did not say anything in response to that at the meeting.

Not keen on returning to the dorm, Rimon spoke to the employer separately after the meeting. According to Rimon, they worked out a deal wherein the employer would give him $200 monthly to continue staying outside, so that MOM could not accuse the company of abandoning a worker. According to the employer however, he said he only agreed to “consider” that request.

What subsequently happened was a little confused; Rimon himself was not sure what was going on behind the scenes. But TWC2 learned from the employer himself that he (employer) had called MOM to ask if it was OK if Rimon (presumably with the employer’s blessing) continued to stay outside the dorm. This seems to have set off a splenetic response from the MOM officer — the phone call.

The incident occurred in early June 2018.

Then, the next day after several of us have listened to Rimon’s recording of the phone conversation, TWC2 wrote a formal letter to MOM to protest the tone of the conversation. An audio recording of the phone conversation was attached.

After a weekend, more calls flew back and forth between TWC2, MOM and the employer. To cut a long story short, MOM eventually withdrew its demand that Rimon go home immediately. His injury claim was settled about a month later and he went home happy.

Says Ethan Guo, TWC2 General Manager, “What I think this case was about was an overzealous MOM case officer who thought he was being very efficient in enforcing the requirement for the employer to continue the upkeep of the worker.” When it became apparent to the MOM officer that worker and employer “tried to cut a separate housing deal, [he] then became angry … and went overboard in ordering [Rimon] to return home immediately.”

TWC2 fully agrees with the principle that employers remain responsible for the housing and upkeep of workers with claims. We mostly agree that workers should remain in the proper dorms — provided other issues like security, bullying and income are also taken care of. We’ll put out a separate paper about that.

“It’s the MOM officer’s high-handedness in dealing with the worker that we have an issue with,” stresses Ethan. This should be distinguished from the more general question of the best way to house foreign workers with salary or injury claims.

Two months after the incident, in August 2018, MOM gave us a response of a sort. They acknowledged that the MOM officer in question could have handled the situation better.