By Koh Jie Min, based on an interview in August 2018

Seeing Chand’s well-groomed face and clean clothes, it is hard to believe that he has been alone and out of a job in Singapore for ten months. Despite having been involved in a workplace accident in July 2017, his work injury compensation claim has yet to be resolved. He says the case is at a standstill as the employer is disputing his claims. This may not in fact be so as can be seen in the editorial comment below.

On 7 October 2017, Chand Mohammad Fokir had gone to work in the morning as usual when the accident happened. At around 9 am, he fell while carrying a metal structure, and the structure subsequently fell on top of him, injuring his back. He went to see a doctor at a HealthServe clinic that very afternoon, and that was the start of several long months of doctor’s appointments, hospital visits, and physiotherapy. His injuries prevented him from working after that, but his company seemed to have other plans for him.

Chand says that his ‘in-charge’ told him, “Now you some problem, you go Bangla.” And it wasn’t just his in-charge who told him this, Chand adds. “Site manager say same talking.”

According to Chand, when he tried to claim his medical fees through the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), his company disputed his claims. This may be the reason why reimbursements aren’t coming through. MOM will only pressure employers to pay up if it is first ascertained that a workplace injury occurred.

Getting ready to fight his case, Chand says he has a witness to the accident. This other worker was working at the same worksite when the incident happened. He left the company’s employment soon after, but he should be returning to Singapore soon to work for a new company. No longer under the same company, he will be free from coercion, and Chand expects that he will be able to testify truthfully.

Moreover, Chand’s initial medical consultation was at HealthServe, a non-governmental organization (NGO) specialising in medical help for migrant workers. HealthServe would not be beholden to employers unlike some doctors in private practice who have been known to record details of injury incidents in a manner prejudicial to victims.

Moreover, Chand went to HealthServe on the same day as the incident. This should help, unlike the situation with other workers, whose initial medical reports do not carry the same dates as the claimed incidents.

Chand is truly lucky to have all these factors in his favour. They will help him prove his claim, if need be. Had anything else happened differently, he might not have been in a good position.

Of course, Chand’s ten-month long absence did not go unnoticed by his family back in the Bangladesh. The oldest of four children, he is the sole bread winner supporting his three siblings and elderly parents. When he stopped working, he stopped sending money back home.

“Ya lah,” he says with an innocent candidness when I asked him if his family suffered badly back home. “Mother cry,” he says when he told her about how he lost his job.

So many things could have gone wrong throughout Chand’s claim process, and despite the unusually long time taken to resolve the dispute, he has high hopes of a successful resolution. For many other migrant workers though, this is not the case. Essentially, injured workers have tenuous access to evidence. Witnesses can be coerced by bosses to deny an accident occurred, medical consultation dates may not match, and doctors notes may have been written up based on what the supervisor or manager described of the accident, not the worker. Thus, under the current system, many workers are left in a very vulnerable position, unable to substantiate their injury compensation claims.

Chand is lucky, but for every Chand, there are many more workers left in the lurch.

It is interesting that Chand believes his employer is disputing his compensation claim. The available public records do not indicate so. Instead they seem to indicate that (a) MOM has already classed the incident as a workplace accident and (b) that the claims office is simply waiting for medical treatment to be completed before assessing compensation due.

Why does Chand believe what he believes? Is it due to lack of information, leading him to imagine the worst? Or does he know something about the employer’s intentions that MOM does not yet know? After all, his first-hand experience is that the company tried to send him home and that he is having difficulty getting reimbursements for his costs.

Workers like Chand are under a lot of stress during their injury recovery period for reasons like this. The system is opaque; employers’ intentions are hard to decipher. All they know is that when conflict develops, they will be disadvantaged for a variety of reasons in getting witnesses and evidence. Chand is simply lucky in this respect.