By Debbie Fordyce

Does the Ministry of Manpower pay lawyers to handle work injury compensation claims?

“Lawyers always exciting to take case.”

At least some injured workers certainly think that MOM does. They say that they’ve heard that MOM pays lawyers $300 a month to file and manage work injury compensation (WIC) claims. Newly injured workers hear this from older workers and may accept it as common knowledge and as fact.

“MOM give money, then free for workers.”

It appears to be such a firmly-held belief — that MOM rewards the law firms — that workers don’t feel the need for the legal assistant to confirm that they receive money from MOM.

The great majority of workers who register with TWC2’s Cuff Road Project would have engaged lawyers before they come to us. It is easy to think that that men seek lawyers to help with their injury claims, but in fact, that is not the main reason why they flock to lawyers. From our conversations with them, lack of awareness about the process of lodging a claim for compensation is a secondary concern.

Instead, we learn that their immediate concerns are quite different: avoiding repatriation as threatened by the employer, having access to medical treatment, finding housing after being expelled from the company dormitory, and establishing the legitimacy of their workplace injury, if it is contested by the employer.  For advice on these matters, injured men turn to more experienced friends and co-workers, and who, almost to a man, advise engaging a lawyer.

“Friend talk: you catch lawyer, MOM give money.”

Law firms are expected to explain their charges to their clients, but injured workers report that the (Bengali or Tamil speaking) legal assistants either say nothing about fees, tell them that the law firm will take a percentage (usually 10%) of the compensation amount, or say they are free to pay whatever they feel is fair. Workers are reluctant to ask direct questions about payment, afraid that this would be seen as impolite and distrustful and might antagonise the legal assistant, with the result that he might be unwilling to take on the case.

If the legal assistant says nothing about fees, and the injured worker already believes that MOM will take care of the lawyer’s charges, the two serve to corroborate each other.

“Lawyer never say take money from worker. Or say take 10%.”

Even if the legal assistant mentions 10%, this still does not disabuse the worker of the belief that MOM will pay $300 or some such sum to the law firm. The worker could see the 10% or “whatever you think is fair” as a form of tip on top of the base fee billed to MOM.

Nor would the law firms have reason to dissuade their clients of this belief. Law firms are likely to relish the idea that MOM is supporting and encouraging their work.

TWC2 knows this is complete misinformation. Payment from MOM to law firms contradicts the information given in MOM’s pamphlets, which states that a lawyer is not necessary for the work injury claim process. Yet even this sentence is often misinterpreted. What the men understand from MOM’s printed material may be that having legal representation is not essential, but still assume it to be desirable. And the workers’ reasoning goes like this:

“This good because MOM not give money, no fighting. Money give, can work.”

(Perhaps the above statement needs a bit of translation: This is a good thing, because if MOM didn’t give lawyers money, then they wouldn’t fight for us [workers]. Since MOM does give them money, they’d do this work for us.)

MOM will need to be more proactive about reaching out to injured workers if they are serious about lawyers being an unnecessary part of the process. Workers will need to be convinced that they can rely on MOM to address their immediate concerns:

  • Protection from immediate repatriation, thus depriving them of medical care and/or the chance to lodge an injury compensation claim;
  • Intimidation by employers or their lieutenants to prevent them from lodging claims;
  • Suppression of evidence by employers;
  • Alternative housing where they are safe from intimidation and possible forced repatriation;
  • Smooth access to medical care.

Essentially, these are largely concerns about security. We shouldn’t mislead ourselves into thinking they go to lawyers solely for help with the mechanics of work injury compensation. The fact that the majority of injured workers seek the help of law firms tells us that very few feel confident they can depend on MOM for security.

Sensitising MOM officers to this angle and being seen to be more effective in addressing the above security issues would help discredit rumours about paying law firms to manage work injury claims.