By Ada Cheong, based on interviews conducted in September 2018

Singapore is reputed to be a business-friendly place. A phalanx of blue-green skyscrapers — our central business district — rises up just behind the Merlion. The area is bustling with people in suits and work dresses, working for multinational companies and investors: banks, insurance companies, and accounting firms.

But it is a very different part of town where I sit, talking to the men who make such a business-friendly place real. We are at Transient Workers Count Too’s free meals program, the Cuff Road Project. The smell of curry makes my stomach growl, and under the lazy ceiling fan, the bustle of the street files past our table. I am talking to Alam Jahanjir, who has injured his wrist in June this year at a construction site. His injury is less conspicuous than the crutches, armslings and bandages that have passed through our meal project, and his wrist looks outwardly fine.

Alam tells me that he received treatment at Ng Teng Fong hospital, and his company seems to have complied with the process laid out by WICA (the Workplace Injury Compensation Act). It has fully paid for his medical treatment, and Alam has received an MC (medical certificate) to cover him until the 3rd of October. The company has also paid him his salary for this time, an amount discussed a lot by workers, and known as their MC money.

Yet, I find myself immediately suspicious of this news. “How much?” I demand.

Alam insists that he was paid the full amount of MC money. This is laid out by the MOM to be calculated as the full AME (average monthly earnings) for up to fourteen days of outpatient MC (sixty days for hospitalization) and two-thirds this amount thereafter, for up to a year.

“How do you know?” I press, unconvinced that he knows if the paid sum was correct. “Because company and MOM both say OK,” he says. It turns out that his company was initially unsure of how to calculate MC money, and had checked with MOM, sitting down with an officer to work the sum out.

Yet, Alam’s case is somewhat anomalous, as compared to many of the other men I have spoken to. Some men do not receive full medical treatment as their companies withhold payments to the hospital. Many others, like Shil Sumon Kumar, do not receive their MC money while they are recovering from their injuries. If that sounds outrageous, it is – because it is illegal, according to WICA.

In the event that workers do receive MC money, this amount is constantly subject to manipulation. Ironic, for a country that has a flourishing financial sector, and where numbers hold immense power.

This is the case for Suman, who suffered an accident in a company vehicle while on the way to work. The extensive injuries to his head, neck, shoulders, and back, saw him hospitalised in Ng Teng Fong Hospital for a total of twelve days as he underwent multiple operations.

With a hefty MC of two hundred and sixty days, he has been awarded $500 a month for his MC money. When he explained to us that this was equivalent to his basic salary, it struck us that this figure was possibly wrong. Nowhere in the Employment Act (EA) or Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) does it say that MC pay (also known as “sick leave” in the EA) should be equivalent to basic salary. The legislation speaks of “gross rate of pay” which includes recognition of average overtime. But after a certain period — it varies depending on the exact circumstances of the patient —  the WICA stipulates that MC pay steps down to two-thirds of the AME, as mentioned a few paragraphs above. The AME  being an mathematical average, is unlikely to be a round number like “$500”; two-thirds of it is even less likely to be a round number.

Chandran Vijayakumar had a similar experience. He said he received $1,600 each month over his four month MC period, and $1,600 was the basic salary stated on his IPA (In-principle approval) letter.

This is not to say that Suman or Vijayakumar were underpaid their MC wages; they could have been overpaid. The point is that without access to their monthly salary details (including overtime, etc) over the last 12 months, it is impossible to calculate what the correct MC pay should be. 

With companies’ widespread lack of transparency in paying workers their due, the AME and MC money are often contested. Whether a conscious cost-reduction strategy or not, such flexibility in legal ‘interpretation’ by employers perplexes me. Singapore’s legal system has always been a fearsomely effective one – notorious for still upholding the death sentence, its laws must surely have its weight in gold. How do companies so blatantly ignore the legal guidelines decreed by our ministries? Such laws, surely, create the business-friendly environment that allows us to thrive. But one cannot help but ask, whose are the bodies on which our skyscrapers are built?