The case reported in the Straits Times on 27 June 2019 pivoted on the four days’ gap between the date of the accident and the day the worker first went to see a doctor. Such a delay in seeking medical treatment is quite common among injured workers; thus the significance of this case.
The worker involved in this case was Palraj Duraiarasan. Though he dealt with his lawyer himself, TWC2 helped him with free meals and transport subsidies over five months between February and June 2016. We also accompanied him on his medical appointments and helped him communicate with doctors.
On 15 January 2016, Duraiarasan was at work at a Yishun work site when metal debris from the tip of a large nail he was driving into a concrete block flew off and hit his right eye through a gap in the goggles he was wearing. He told his supervisor as soon as he could, but he went to a doctor only four days later.
He first attempted to seek compensation through the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM’s) work injury compensation system. However, MOM’s Commissioner of Labour rejected his claim. In a notice of assessment issued on 4 April 2016, the Commissioner found that the “injury was not caused by accident arising out of and in the course of employment”, in other words, not work-related, and thus not admissible under the Work Injury Compensation Act. Based on news reports, this was probably because the employer, Mong Seng Construction, denied that he had been injured on January 15th and insisted that Duraiarasan only complained of a painful eye on January 19th.
The Straits Times reported:
District Judge James Leong found Mr Palraj’s [Duraiarasan’s] explanation of the delay in treatment not to be unreasonable. The circumstances of his being a foreign worker would also have to be considered, said the judge in oral judgment grounds earlier this month, noting that the trust Mr Palraj placed in his employers, in seeking treatment only when permitted four days later and even reporting for work in the interim, was open to more than one interpretation.
(Bold emphasis added by TWC2)
Indeed, it is commonly the case that foreign workers have to ask for permission from their employers before they can seek medical treatment. They don’t have money to pay hospitals. A typical visit to the emergency department will cost them over a hundred dollars, or around a week’s pay. Moreover, if they just take a day off to go to a doctor, they may be subject to a “fine” for not showing up for work. The fine is not merely a deduction of the day’s wages, but a sum several times a day’s pay.
It is inherently unjust that employers should use this power of deciding when to allow a worker to see a doctor to delay treatment and then use the delay itself to argue that the claimed date of accident was false (and therefore the accident hadn’t happened), since it would not correlate with the date of first medical consultation. Not only would the use of such power prolong pain and suffering, it would deny the worker his rightful compensation should there be any permanent disability. In fact, sometimes the delay results in permanent disability; prompt treatment might have prevented it.
Fortunately, in this case, Duraiarasan had a witness who testified in support of his version of events. The judge noted that there was also no ulterior motive or benefit that the witness, S. Ganesan, would gain from testifying in the case. This itself is a very interesting comment for it indicates that judges are now alert to the possibility that foreign workers testifying for employers’ version of events may have been coerced or incentivised by bosses to do so.
The judge concluded that Duraiarasan’s version was broadly consistent throughout as told to different doctors. All things considered, said the judge, the worker had established his case on the balance of probabilities. The employer was held liable and the case was referred to the Registrar for assessment of damages and costs.
The story in the Straits Times (“Judge rules firm liable to pay for injury of foreign worker who delayed treatment”) by K C Vijayan was published on 27 June 2019. The link (paywall) is https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/labour-courts-finding-not-conclusive-rules-judge
13 September 2019. We have now located the written judgement of the District Judge in this case: Palraj Duraiarasan v Chia Lip Seng t/a Mong Seng Construction SGDC 156 . It can be seen here. The Defendant (employer) filed an appeal against this decision to the High Court on 26 June 2019. We shall look out for the appeal decision.