By Ng Zu Xiang, based on interviews in July 2018

Workplace injuries are not an uncommon occurrence in construction, especially with the number of projects burgeoning across Singapore. As such, the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) is crucial and it has been used in regularly, but not all cases transpire the same way. Here are stories of two men.

Forhad Mohammad (header pic, at left) came to us with forlorn eyes and a face weary with confusion. He seemed lost and vulnerable as he recounted his injury case. But five minutes in, what we assumed to be a tragic story of injustice turned out to be quite the opposite.

Forhad had injured his still-bandaged-thumb in April 2018. He was taken to a private clinic for treatment and given one day’s medical leave (“MC”). Unsatisfied with his treatment, Forhad visited Tan Tock Seng hospital, without telling his employer, and was given a seven-day MC. His employer was upset by this turn of events but nonetheless paid the medical bills. It was around this time that his employer reminded Forhad that his Work Permit was near expiry, which Forhad interpreted as a retaliatory move.

Yet, when we asked Forhad about his medical leave wages, he confirmed that the employer had paid him. The company was providing accommodation. There was also the $90 the employer gave him to pay for the medical assessment of disability — a necessary stage in injury claims. Many other employers don’t even do that and the injured worker has to pay first out of his own pocket.

We thus got curious as to Forhad’s worries in the first place, considering his employer’s commendable actions. It turns there was simply a lack of information. He didn’t know what to expect at various stages of the claims process. He was also unfamiliar with bureaucratic jargon, leaving him confused. As a result, he’s imagining that things aren’t going well.

We were happy to inform him that his case had been going smoothly and that he should be patient while the medical and MOM processes take their usual course. We joked that his story had been so smooth that Forhad couldn’t believe that nothing had gone wrong. Who’s ever heard of an injury case going well? Something foul must be afoot. Our jokes loosened Forhad up; he took his leave relieved of worries.

We soon met Mondal, who came to consult with us.

Mondal Joydab (header pic, at right) also had an injury case. Judging by the way he looked — back confidently held erect, stern eyes determined to understand his situation — we thought his story would be similarly positive. We quickly learnt this was not the case.

Mondal hurt his back from a scaffolding incident one June morning but did not receive prompt medical attention. In the evening after work, he was taken to a Traditional Chinese Medicine clinic for treatment, which surprised the traditional medical practitioner himself who instructed that Mondal be taken to a hospital. That apparently didn’t happen. It was Mondal who took it on himself to visit a hospital several days after where he was given an 18-day MC.

Mondal said his employer was not forgiving of his actions, sternly suggesting that this would warrant cancellation of his Work Permit. They argued over the telephone; his employer insisted Mondal return to the office or dorm so they could further discuss the situation. However, Mondal said he had had enough ali baba [informal slang referring to deceptive behaviour] and returned to the hospital seeking refuge.

Uninformed of Mondal’s whereabouts, his employer reported to the police that Mondal had gone missing. However, the police dialled Mondal’s number and reached him with no difficulty. Mondal then explained his situation and the police advised him to consult MOM.

Reviewing this background, TWC2 advises Mondal to be prepared for conflict between employer and employee. Two months after the accident, it does not appear that the employer has yet confirmed to MOM that a workplace accident occurred, going by the status statement on MOM’s server. Moreover, delay in getting medical attention for Mondal — he didn’t get to a doctor till several days after the incident — means he has no medical record for the day of the accident. This makes it easy to deny that an accident happened.

“You will have to fight for your case! Cannot sit back and wait for things to happen,” warns senior volunteer Alex. But looking at Mondal’s strong demeanour and determination, we are confident that he can pull through.

Though WICA is intended as social legislation to provide protection for workers, its success still relies heavily on employers’ compliance, which can disadvantage workers. In Mondal’s case, he alone cannot ensure that proper medical treatment be administered promptly, for that was assumed to be his employer’s duty, nor can he substantiate his case alone without a corresponding statement from his employer to confirm the incident.

Workers are also disadvantaged when they don’t understand the process. In Forhad’s case, the lack of understanding of the WICA process, along with the absence of conflict with his boss, makes him needlessly worried that something’s going wrong.

These cases not only highlight the incongruence between law and reality, but the lack of worker empowerment. This can be improved rather easily, perhaps most crudely, through a briefing before the workers start employment, to equip them with the necessary information about their rights and the basic procedure under WICA. Information that can help protect themselves better.

People are often disadvantaged due to a lack of knowledge; knowledge about their own rights, knowledge that help is always within reach, knowledge that can pull them out of dim situations and alleviate suffering. Indeed, knowledge is essential, and as writer Alan Moore would remind us: “Knowledge, like air, is vital to life. Like air, no one should be denied it.”