By Debbie Fordyce

The first graph (below) suggests that a disproportionate number of Indian and Bangladeshi migrant workers lodge injury claims within the first six months of starting a job. Moreover, TWC2’s observation is that many of these injuries are minor and result in little compensation or will heal completely, thus meriting no disability compensation at all.

When foreign workers lodge injury claims, they are likely to lose their jobs. Few employers are tolerant enough to keep them their payroll. Consequently, one might question why these workers lodged injury claims at all for what were a minor injuries, only to pay such a high price. They could have just sought medical treatment and returned to their jobs after a period of medical leave and recovery.

Are the men gambling with Singapore’s Work Injury Claim system, hoping to win a huge compensation amount for minor disabilities? Are they faking the injuries? From our long experience with migrant workers, we have reason to believe that some men are making use of the Work Injury Compensation (WIC) claim system for other than its intended purpose.

Before jumping to conclusions, we need to consider other possible reasons that might explain why accidents and injury claims bunch up within the first six months or first year of a job. It may be that new workers are not familiar with the hazards of a site or the equipment they are handling, thus making them more prone to accidents and injuries.

Another reason for our graph’s trend may simply be that most workers do not stay in a job for more than a year. Even if the chance of suffering an injury is purely random, just there being more workers in their first year (or first six months) than workers in their second, third or subsequent years would produce a graph with injuries bunched up in the early period.

Unfortunately, there is no official data available as to the spread of the foreign worker population in terms of the number of years they have been in their jobs. However, we have data from TWC2’s Work History Survey conducted in 2015-2016 which found that about 30% of workers had been less than two years in their current jobs, while 70% had been at their jobs for longer than two years. In contrast, our graph above has proportions inverse to that: about 70% of the injury claims came from workers with less than two years at their jobs. This gives us reason to believe that there are other motivations for lodging injury claims.

That said, we should be careful not to jump to conclusions about character without understanding the circumstances behind those motivations. The aim of this article is to elucidate those circumstances for a better appreciation of the situation.

Some background to the data we collected and shown in the first graph

When injured men approach TWC2 for assistance, we ask them to show that a claim was lodged with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Our standard protocol is to record the date of the injury and the date he started working for that company. We then determine how long he had worked with that employer before the accident occurred. Of 1,019 injury cases (i.e. those with claims lodged at MOM) who came to TWC2’s Cuff Road Project in 2018, we accurately collected both accident and start-work dates in 793 cases. Thus the graph above is based on those 793 men.

Of these men, 37% sustained the injury within the first six months of starting their job, and 60% within the first year. The trend of injuries early in the job holds true for both Bangladeshi and Indian men.

Non-government organisations (NGOs), employers and MOM are all aware of workers filing injury claims within a short time of starting with that employer. MOM understandably focuses on ensuring employers and workers adhere to safety measures. Safety training courses are mandatory, safety supervisors must be on site, and worksite inspections take place regularly. When employers are found to be flouting safety precautions or providing inadequate or faulty equipment, financial penalties are imposed. Serious accidents and work-related deaths result in demerit points and stop-work orders.

But are these early accidents due to a lack of safety precautions?

Both MOM and employers have noticed that too many workers lodge injury compensation claims for small injuries, known in NGO circles as “paper cuts”, or fraudulent ones, e.g. self-inflicted injuries. There’s certainly some truth in there, but as mentioned above, there is more than meets the eye.

We will explain below how, in some cases, a foreign worker is driven to lodge an injury claim by (a) unsympathetic or ruthless behaviour of the employer, and (b) promises by law firms. Both these reasons are amplified by concerns over debt. which springs from exorbitant and unregulated recruitment fees.

Threat of repatriation

It takes time for an employer to know and value his workers. An experienced worker would have earned the trust of his employer and when an accident occurs, the employer may be more sympathetic, and more likely to believe that the reported injury is real and not faked. The employer is more likely to put up with the medical bills and less likely to plan repatriation after an accident.

New workers do not enjoy such trust and forbearance. Whether an employer believes his worker is at fault for causing the accident or faking the injury, he still faces the prospect of medical costs. The easiest and most economical solution is to repatriate the worker before he’s able to see a doctor and lodge a claim. A great majority of the men TWC2 interviews relate threats of repatriation, real or implicit, and recount stories of fellow workers sent home soon after being injured. Almost all don’t trust their employers to provide food and adequate lodging for them or to pay for their medical care. As a result, these men are quick to vacate the company dormitory and to lodge an injury compensation claim. Once a claim is put in, due process has to be adhered to and employers cannot stymie it through premature repatriation.

Thus, it is the unsympathetic behaviour of employers towards new employees who have been injured, however slightly, that explains the tendency to file injury claims even when the injury is too minor to warrant losing the job by bringing the matter up to MOM. When employers have a reputation for quick repatriation, or resist paying for medical care, workers are motivated to file compensation claims as a form of protection.

Promises by law firms

Assistants and touts from a small group of law firms are alert to workers who are distressed and confused about what to do after the injury. These agents of law firms amplify workers’ fears and persuade the men that their legal services are necessary in filing the injury claim. Typically the agents will assure workers that once the claim is filed (by the firm), they would be protected from repatriation. Agents may also play up the prospect of monetary compensation. TWC2 has received reports of agents working the waiting rooms of hospitals to sign up clients. Often there are assurances that their services would cost nothing to the worker, without clearly stating that the law firm would take a percentage of the compensation amount as their fee at the end of the process.

An MOM brochure advises that legal representation is not necessary. Claims under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) do not require legal representation, as these are no-fault claims. Unsurprisingly, these touts do not mention such advice to workers. In any case, frightened workers are willing to grasp the hand that offers both assurance against repatriation and the promise of monetary compensation for any permanent incapacity. The majority of workers approaching TWC2 for assistance would already have signed up with a law firm by the time they come to us.

Once an injury claim is lodged, the employer would generally cancel the work permit. However, since the case would be live, MOM would issue a Special Pass, which would allow the worker to remain in Singapore until the case is resolved. Unfortunately, a condition of the Special Pass is that the worker is prohibited from paid employment. This puts the worker in a terrifying predicament: his family will slip into unsustainable debt and poverty without the steady flow of money.

Using the waiting time profitably

Injury claims can take one year or more to resolve. When the injury is severe, the man may be on medical leave much of this time, and physically unable to work. With less severe injuries — as quite often seen among workers reporting injuries within the first six months of work — the man is physically able to engage in casual albeit illegal work that allows him to continue sending money to support family and repay debts. Although MOM conducts regular checks to ensure that on-site workers carry valid work passes, when families are desperate for remittances, the man is willing to risk punishment to carry on working and earning.

Meanwhile, employers find workers on Special Passes attractive as casual labour because they have no obligation to pay the monthly foreign worker levy, purchase insurance, provide the security bond, or offer job security. From the worker’s point of view, he has job mobility and is paid at a higher rate than most regular jobs given the lack of other costs to the employer. Both sides would face punishment if caught, but there are clear financial incentives to both worker and employer to engage in this arrangement.

Exorbitant recruitment fees, massive debt

The attractiveness of lodging an injury claim, getting a Special Pass and then working illegally has to be seen in the context of recruitment debt. Workers pay huge recruitment fees for their positions in Singapore, requiring as long as two years of work to repay,. Thus, the prospect of being sent home soon after starting the job is intolerable.

The man’s family would have borrowed massively from relatives, friends, moneylenders and banks, and would have sold or leased family land to pay training centres and recruiters. This debt weighs heavily on the worker and his family. His immediate concern is to avoid being sent back as this would reveal to creditors that he is not able to repay the debts. Both the man and his family could be in danger of brutal retaliation from creditors demanding repayment.

Interestingly, while the man feels his responsibilities acutely — and a typical worker here supports 6 to 7 family members at home — it is seldom clear that it was he himself made the conscious decision to take on this debt and seek work here.

The decision to come to Singapore is generally made by the family, not by the individual. Given the lack of suitable employment opportunities in the home country, parents and guardians are eager for young men to work abroad and avoid being drawn into unsavoury activities such as drugs, crime and religious extremism. Working in a foreign country gives the young man the air of being entrepreneurial, manly and courageous, while staying at home makes him appear lazy, directionless, and undesirable in marriage.

Recruiters for foreign workers are known to underplay the physical difficulty of the job while exaggerating the salary, the supervisory nature of the work, and the standing of the company.

The men in turn, after arrival here, are glad to encourage this myth of a respectable job and resist telling their families about their misery at work in order to spare them concern and anxiety. If injured early in the job, men will try to disguise the fact that they’re unable to continue working; some would not even tell their families that they have been injured, since this would dash the family’s hopes for much needed remittances, an enhanced standard of living, and enviable social standing. So, even though they may be unable to work at the legitimate job after an accident, workers are desperate for a way to remain in Singapore and to continue sending money home.

Age at which he is injured

Our study also looked at how old the workers were when they met with an accident. 83% of the Bangladeshi and Indian men with injuries in 2018 were between 20 and 35 when they started with this most recent company, not necessarily their first stint in Singapore.

It is also interesting that a small number of them were not even 20 when they were injured. This suggests that many more are coming to Singapore for their first job at his young age. Their bodies may not have the physical strength to undertake the construction sector jobs that they sign up for, making them prone to injury.

It’s worth stating here that the age shown in the graph above is based on the age stated on their passports, but some may in actual fact be younger, as they’re eager to begin working abroad to avoid remaining unemployed at home after their studies.

So are they misusing the WIC system by filing claims?

Many workers are making use of WIC claims when they face no other option to avoid early repatriation and to find a way of repaying debts and providing for family. Fundamentally, their behaviour is a consequence of extreme insecurity.

If their employers were not so quick to cancel work permits and repatriate, if they weren’t still in debt to middlemen who arranged the employment, if they could depend on their employers to pay for medical treatment and pay medical leave wages, many wouldn’t need to rely on work injury claims.  Even if they lost their jobs because of a lengthy recovery period, it would help if they could, when they’re well enough, switch jobs without paying another tranche of kickbacks.

The work injury compensation system and the Special Pass prohibiting the man from working would not be used as a back door to casual and illegal work if the work permit system would guarantee the worker financial security. Otherwise, workers will do whatever possible to stay on, keep working, and support their families.

The moral issue isn’t so much that of migrant workers abusing the system, it is more a question of why Singapore’s labour migration system — recruitment costs, employers’ liberties, poor enforcement of workers’ right to medical care — compel them to make these choices.