About half the workers who join our meal programme have outstanding injury claims

By TWC2 volunteer Heidi M based on an interview in July 2020

Imagine you sustained an injury at work. Apart from the obvious misfortune, you would be happy to know that Singapore’s Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) lets you make a claim for any resulting disability without having to take legal action under common law. You can make your claim with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) who will also guide you through the process. You do not even need to engage a lawyer to file a WICA claim. All this makes WICA a low-cost and quicker alternative for settling compensation claims compared to taking the case through common law.

Yet, when I ask Faiz (not his real name) to describe what he’s done so far with his case, it’s a far cry from the simple route provided by WICA.

Faiz suffered a back injury eight months ago during employment. He is not in severe pain but his Work Permit was cancelled and he has since been put on a Special Pass which legalises his stay in Singapore while his injury case is processed.

In an information vacuum, Faiz asks a friend

He had heard about filing injury claims but didn’t know how to. Instead of going to MOM to find out, he asked around among his friends. One of them had earlier suffered a back injury as well and had engaged a lawyer to support his case. Even though MOM advises that a lawyer is not needed to complete the WICA claim process, it remains optional to engage one. Faiz’s friend received a total compensation of $10,000 from which the lawyer deducted $1,100 as his fee. This was about 11% of the payout.

This friend, who is already back in Bangladesh, suggested to Faiz that he should engage this same lawyer. After all, the compensation amount the friend received was quite substantial. To thank the friend for his kind recommendation, Faiz says he agreed to pay him $1,000 from his final compensation — equivalent to what Faiz thinks the lawyer will be charging him for legal services.

Faiz made the agreement in good faith, though clearly there seems to be an assumption in his mind that this lawyer will get him $10,000 in compensation too.

But what if his compensation is only $5,000? we ask him. Will he still owe $1,000 to the lawyer and to the friend?

Faiz pauses, thinks for while, and says he will only pay 10% ($500) in that case. That he had to pause and think indicates that Faiz may not have considered the possibility of a lower payout before. He is also not aware that contingency fee agreements remain prohibited under Singapore law and the lawyer should not charge a percentage of the winnings.

And what if Faiz does not receive any compensation at all? This will be the outcome if he recovers fully and suffers no permanent disability. To this hypothetical question, Faiz says he will not need to pay anything to his friend nor the lawyer in such a case. As for what the friend or lawyer will think about that, it is another matter.

Under WICA, the amount of compensation payable is based on a formula and has set limits. The compensation amount is based on the degree of permanent incapacity and the worker’s salary. It does not depend on the lawyer’s skill or effort.

Faiz does not seem worried that his degree of disability has not yet been assessed, yet he seems to assume that he will get money — probably because he’s engaged the same lawyer.

We are not aware of the severity of the friend’s injuries to make any just comparison, so we cannot say whether Faiz’s hopes are justified. The friend sustained a knee injury in addition to the back injury, whereas Faiz only has a back injury.

Article of faith: Powerful person (lawyer) gets you money, not the process

Faiz’s story is an example of the reliance that workers put on their friends’ words when pursuing compensation. There is a lack of knowledge and insight about the claim process, but a lot of unfounded hope. This makes them easy targets to mislead. In this case, Faiz attributes the friend’s compensation success to this lawyer, whom he now trusts to bring him the same result.

Where MOM clearly states that the worker does not have to engage a lawyer to file a WICA claim, the lawyer is quite happily welcoming the worker as a client.

Even though TWC2 tells every worker who signs up for our meal programme that they generally don’t need a lawyer and that we can assist in discharging them, most workers still choose to stick with their lawyers. Their faith in their friend’s advice and the power of lawyers is strong.