On 24 September, the Ministry of Manpower reacted to our article “New Work Injury Compensation Act passed” with some umbrage. It said we made three “false allegations”. See their statement here.

We respond to MOM’s statement:

False allegation #1: There is weak enforcement against non-reporting of injuries

TWC2 stated that they have not observed any employer being punished for not reporting work injuries and alleged that MOM’s enforcement is weak.

In 2018, MOM issued composition fines to 39 employers for non-reporting of work injuries. In 2016, a site manager was convicted and given a 6 months’ imprisonment for attempting to cover up a workplace accident. We provided this information in response to a parliamentary question raised by Member of Parliament Mr Louis Ng on 6 March 2019.

A simple fact check of public records would have shown TWC2 that their allegations were false. We urge TWC2 to take some efforts to verify facts. Additionally, if TWC2 knows of any case of non-reporting of injuries, it can help the affected workers by simply reporting such cases to MOM. An established channel has been in place since June 2013 for TWC2 to refer workers who require assistance to MOM.

Nowhere in our article did we use the words “weak enforcement” specifically in relation to non-reporting of injuries, though we did say “TWC2 has not observed any employer punished for flouting the rule and not reporting”.

However, we did use the words in a more general context. We said that “the inadequacies of the old WICA weren’t only in the text of the law, they are also largely a matter of weak enforcement. Going forward, unless enforcement improves, the new WICA may not be much better.”

MOM should not be putting whole new sentences  in our mouths and then claiming that what we said was false.

Nor can MOM say we were untruthful in saying we had not observed when in reality we had not observed. How is our statement about our observation false?

We are glad MOM has now pointed out that there were 39 composition fines dished out in 2018, and one prosecution three years back — none since then? — though perhaps a fair question to ask would be whether these had any deterrent effect since in our view, late and non-reporting continues. It probably cannot have much deterrent effect if such cases never make it to the media, or kept closely guarded till asked by a Member of Parliament.

False allegation #2: MOM is reluctant to compel employers to pay for medical treatment when the work-relatedness of an injury is in doubt.

TWC2 alleged that MOM does not compel employers to pay for the medical expenses if the work injury is disputed. This is false. MOM requires employers to pay for medical treatments even if the employer disputes that the injury suffered by the worker is related to work. MOM instructs employers to pay in such scenarios and have taken enforcement actions against the small minority (fewer than 20 cases a year) that did not comply.

Additionally, TWC2 should know that apart from the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA), the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act requires employers to pay for all the medical expenses of their migrant workers in non-work injury cases. There is therefore no ‘loophole’ as TWC2 implied that would allow employers to avoid paying the medical expenses simply by contesting that the injury was work-related.

We wrote about situations where a work injury claim had not yet been established to be valid: “In the interim, since it is not (yet) classified as a work injury, MOM is reluctant to compel employers to provide medical treatment.”

MOM may like to assert that they do compel employers to provide medical treatment, and it may well be paper policy within the ministry, but based on our casework, we’ve seen many injury cases wherein workers say their employers are successfully dragging their feet in providing letters of guarantee to hospitals in order for the diagnostic procedure, medical treatment or surgery to go ahead. Our caseworkers have dealt with MOM officials in attempts to break the logjam but have not received much action. On a policy level, our senior volunteers have raised the issue of using the medical insurance required by the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA) to cover costs while the WICA issues are sorted out but we have (till now) not received affirmative replies accepting our suggestion.

We stand by our characterisation of the situation as one of seeming reluctance.

Interestingly, in MOM’s second paragraph above, they are now referring to EFMA. This is the first time we’re seeing them make this connection, though there is still silence about using the medical insurance to ensure medical care is uninterrupted. We hope this translates to real action. We’d also count this as yet another example where after years of (unappreciated) advocacy, MOM may finally be adopting what we have proposed.

MOM says that in a small minority of (20) cases, they have taken action. We have no information about these specific cases. Perhaps these are the cases where the doctors have written that the medical or surgical intervention was “medically and immediately necessary”. If that’s what MOM was referring to, we agree that the ministry does take action when such a note is in hand. But then, all the more it contrasts with the relative inaction when doctors do not provide such letters.

It is particularly interesting that during the parliamentary debate on the new Work Injury Compensation Act (3 Sept 2019), a Member of Parliament, Zainal Sapari, also pointed out “there are good reasons to suspect that some employers or insurers may deliberately drag the cases because they are aware the migrant worker will run into hardship and put the employers or insurers at an advantage”.

Even more to the point, MP Patrick Tay urged: “while the WIC claim is being processed, the employer should ensure that the injured worker is able to seek the medical attention that he or she requires in an expedient manner with the employer’s support. There have been reported incidences where injured workers were not able to seek medical treatment because the employer did not provide them with a Letter of Guarantee and the workers had to go without treatment as they were unable to afford medical treatment.”

Why would Patrick Tay say that if he had not also noticed the situation?

Clearly, there are others besides TWC2 who have also noticed that medical care is difficult for workers to access especially while the validity of the claim is contested. Perhaps MOM should write strong letters to these MPs accusing them of spreading falsehoods too.

At the same time, we recall the umbrage that MOM took with the words “weak enforcement”. The disconnect between these points made by Members of Parliament, and MOM’s assertion that they do compel employers to provide medical treatment, suggests that very thing: weak enforcement.

False allegation #3: Workers can be denied WICA compensation if employers do not declare truthfully in incident reports

All reported cases will be automatically processed for WICA compensation. If employers dispute the work injury, investigations will be carried out to ascertain if the injury is related to work. Workers will be given the opportunity to present their side of the story, and would not be prejudiced by information in the report.

It is therefore untrue that a worker could be denied his WICA compensation simply because the employer does not disclose fully in the incident report. There is hence no need, as TWC2 suggested, for the worker to have access to the report to ensure that his WICA compensation is paid out.

One possible situation where workers may want the incident report is when they wish to use it to file a civil suit under common law. Under common law, information suggesting whether any party was at fault in the accident could affect the claim. In such situations, workers can obtain copies of the report by paying a nominal fee of $5.

Once again, MOM is putting words into our mouths. Our article does not have a sentence that reads “Workers can be denied WICA compensation if employers do not declare truthfully in incident reports”, which MOM claims is false.

Even if that sentence were there, how it is that false? It is a logical statement. If employers file untruthful descriptions of incidents, it can lead to workers being denied compensation. Is the logic false?

MOM expanded its point (in their 24 September statement) to add that even if employers filed untruthful incident reports, MOM would get the worker’s version and would arrive at a correct finding, and no worker would find the employer’s untruthful report prejudicing his case. This is too shallow an argument, especially as MOM maintains that the worker does not “need” access to the report. How is anyone — let a long a foreign worker unused to Singapore’s bureaucratic ways — to  cogently rebut a false report when he is denied the right to see that report?

Moreover, how does one explain the several cases wherein MOM’s decision to deny compensation (on the ground that the injury did not arise out of an in the course of employment) was reversed by either the Labour Court or the High Court? Whether workers were prejudiced or not is an empirical question, not a theoretical one answered by merely pointing to how things “ought” to be, as MOM seems to be suggesting.

In any case, we need to come back to the key issue. What exactly did TWC2 say in our article? We said this: “TWC2 has seen many cases where employers were less than accurate or truthful in these reports; they having a vested interest in describing the incident in a way that deflects attention away from their own safety lapses, or even denying that the incident occurred within their worksite altogether to avoid liability for compensation.”

How is that a false statement?