“The High Court placed total blame on a maintenance company for injuries suffered by a worker who fell from a 7m-high fireman’s ladder…” began the Straits Times story (published 24 August 2019) on the judgement from Justice Ang Cheng Hock.
Md Suzon Miah was paralysed from the waist down from that accident on 26 June 2015. Represented by Hoh Law, he sued the employer Proof-Tech Waterproofing & Maintenance for failing to ensure safe working methods. Suzon was not a client of TWC2; we came to know of the case only from the papers.
What caught our eye about the news story however was that the judge said that co-worker Khan Md Rasel, on whose evidence the company relied for its defence, was “far from being a reliable witness”.
TWC2 has come across many similar injury cases — albeit mostly at the Ministry of Manpower inquiry stage, not so often at court — where the victim has told us that the boss paraded several co-workers as witnesses to deny that the accident ever happened, or that it didn’t happen the way the victim said it did. Our injured clients are often upset that the boss can so easily persuade other workers to distort the story in order to deny the their work injury compensation claims.
That bosses have power over foreign workers is no secret. Singapore’s regulatory system gives employers the right to cancel Work Permits (and thus terminate migrant workers’ employment) at will. No reason need be given. Workers know that trying to get a new job after that will be very difficult and will involve hefty sums (thousands of dollars) for “agent money”. So when bosses ask workers to go to MOM or the courts to tell a fictitious story in the company’s defence, these men are hardly in a position to resist the request.
We therefore found it significant that in this reported case, the High Court judge took pains to examine the co-worker’s testimony, and came to the finding that he was unreliable (see too another story referenced in the footnote). As reported in the Straits Times story:
Justice Ang said it was quite “improbable that Mr Suzon could have fallen from a height of 3.5m, as Mr Rasel had claimed, from an inclined ladder to a position behind the co-worker.
Mr Rasel said he was at the foot of the ladder at the time.
The judge said: “For this to have happened, logic dictates Suzon would have had to push off from the ladder with some force in a deliberate backwards motion.”
The judge also found that the co-worker’s claim that Suzon fell from 3.5 metres (halfway up the ladder) to be untrue. Instead, the court found that he fell from standing near the top of the ladder carrying out the work of cleaning the ventilation duct. Reading between the lines, the latter must have been Suzon’s claim, which the employer must have tried to deny. When the top of the ladder is 7 metres high, quite different safety measures would be required.
The judge noted that the company was aware of the risk of working at 7 metres.
In bidding for the job, Proof-Tech had prescribed installation of aluminium staging for high access as part of the work scope. The quotation was accepted on that basis.
Justice Ang noted that Proof-Tech must have decided it would not have been safe for its workers to use a ladder to carry out the work, given the absence of any anchorage points.
Yet, Suzon was up a ladder. Perhaps to minimise the company’s responsibility, Rasel testified that Suzon was only climbing halfway up when he fell.
TWC2 hopes that in other inquiries, testimony by workmates who are also foreign workers should be similarly scrutinised. Their vulnerability to pressure by bosses asking them to bear false witness should always be borne in mind. An image of the Straits Times story can be found here.