We first featured Raju in the story To encash two cheques, Raju had to jump through hoops, which was about his last three days before going home. Prior to that, he was having difficulty getting due settlement of his injury compensation claim and this story below is about an incident during that period.

By Ada Cheong based on an interview in September 2018

The Blank Paper Incident

Two Chinese men seat themselves on either side of Raju in the coffeshop and he catches a whiff of stale cigarettes and sweat. Six other men surround the table, some pacing. Raju’s boss settles himself on the opposite side of the table.

“Many men talking. Talking Chinese.”

The man on his left shows Raju something below the table. He presses it onto Raju’s thigh with purpose, willing him to take it. It is an A5 piece of white paper, slightly crumpled and flutterring at the edges with each gust from the ceiling fan. Raju takes it and pins it down on the table, asking his boss, “Why [must] I sign? This paper, why I sign?”

His boss tells him to just sign it. The voices around the table crescendo, and more hands are placed on the table, pointing and tapping. The white paper jumps with each heavy tap. Wiping a bead of perspiration off his forehead, the boss produces $200. From nowhere, a woman appears. Her fingers are curled around a mobile phone with the miniscule camera gleaming on her device. His boss waves the four blue fifty-dollar notes at Raju. “You sign, and take the money.”

Raju’s hoodie tightens around him like a fist, but he manages to keep his tone even. “Why you take photo?” Loud, Mandarin words wring his left eardrum. Reaching into his pocket, he pulls out his own phone.

“I call police, police come. If police say I sign, then I sign,” he reasons. In response, his boss raises his voice — “He angry, angry, shouting big,” recalls Raju — and the man to Raju’s left lowers his in order to let the boss speak. Raju’s own head rings with many questions, taunted by the blank paper.

But Raju also senses a gap and opportunity behind him, and immediately stands up. Pulse racing with questions, he leaves the coffeeshop unharmed.

Changing attitude

Raju relates this to me at Transient Workers Count Too’s free meals program, the Cuff Road Project. Under his bushy brows, honey-coloured eyes gleam back at me.

He used to go to his boss’ house during Chinese New Year. “My boss got many money. Got five bungalows,” Raju tells me. He has worked for this boss since 2012, a long time — long enough for him to pick up some Hokkien phrases.

He’s been working hard for this employer. “Two, three, four a.m., I job do,” but in December 2017, Raju suffered a workplace accident while carrying a heavy metal plate.  “Accident already ah, [boss’ attitude] change already.”

In pursuing his WICA (workplace injury compensation act) claim, he has had to sign many forms — but none of them had been blank sheets. So the incident at the coffeeshop was bizarre.

“Why does your boss want you to sign that?” I address the elephant in the room.

Raju chuckles, “You think lah,” suggesting that it should be easy to guess the answer. “He ask sign, then don’t want pay me.”

After probing into his case, it becomes clear that his employer had been struggling with the expenses resulting from Raju’s injury. Beyond the fees for medical treatment, WICA states that the employer has to cover two forms of compensation: medical leave wages (referred to by workers as “MC money”) as well as a lump sum compensation for permanent disability that results.

These two compensations are calculated through specific formulae provided by the Ministry of Manpower, and both formulae are based on the employee’s average monthly earnings (AME) through the twelve months prior to the accident. In calculating the AME, allowances and overtime payments are taken into account in addition to the official basic salary stated on the employee’s IPA (in-principle approval letter). The IPA is the Ministry of Manpower letter documenting the terms of a worker’s employment at the point of recruitment. In Raju’s case, this basic salary on the current IPA was $1,750.

With such a relatively high basic salary (compared to most other work permit holders), Raju’s AME would be high too. The months of medical leave he had would translate to a substantial amount, and this would be in addition to the disability compensation which likewise is linked to his AME.

“Boss want to re-open the salary case,” Raju says, pitching in to help me make sense of things. I nod, but only partially understand. The familiar feeling of confusion creeps back upon me, a feeling that must be an everyday reality for migrant workers with legal problems. Salary case? I thought his issue has to do with injury…

Underpaid salary too

Raju produces from a green polka-dotted folder the forms he has meticulously collected. He explains that he was underpaid in the past nine months. I shuffle through the documents, trying to figure things out. After getting an impression of his salary issues, I double check, “But your salary claim settle already, right?” Raju affirms this — his salary claim conducted through the Ministry of Manpower was successful and he has since been paid the due arrears.

However, the point is this: In agreeing to settle the arrears, the employer formally acknowledged that the documented salary is the correct one. This in turn means that it is the basis for the calculation of the AME for the injury case.

I locate the form that deals with his injury claim. The AME on it, written in squiggly black ink: $3,983.98 (per month), nearly four times as much as his boss had been (under-)paying Raju. Things begin falling in place for me now. What his employer didn’t realise till later was that Raju’s documented salary would be used for the injury claims process.

It comes back to bite

“But your boss give salary already, why now got problem paying MC money?” I ask.

No employer wants to pay out more than he has to. It was bad enough that the boss had to pay up the salary arrears, he is now looking at having to pay even more for the sick leave and the disability compensation.

There should be insurance to cover the latter, but as it turns out, his employer had underbought insurance. According to Raju, when he first started work with this company, his basic salary was only $600 a month. A few years later, he rejoined the company, but this time he had an excavator-operator certificate and was hired at the much higher pay rate of $1,750. From what Raju tells me, the company failed to update the insurance company about the higher salary.

It finally clicks. Having bought Raju’s insurance policy based on a salary lower than his updated one, the company did not sufficient insurance to cover the hefty compensation sums ordained by the Ministry of Manpower.

This explains the coffeeshop meeting, the waving of $200 and the blank piece of paper pressed into Raju’s hand. It explains the menacing pacing of six other men and the intrusive camera from the phone. It was a last-ditch attempt at getting him to waive his claim.

Bitter taste

The story has a happy ending, as our earlier article would have told. Luckily for the company — and, more importantly, for Raju — the latest news is that the insurers have now agreed to pay Raju his rightful compensation even though they’re not liable for the full sum. They will instead let the employer reimburse the insurer through future installments.

Yet, the coffeeshop confrontation has left a bitter taste in his mouth. He says about his boss, “Money many have, but heart is very small”.