By TWC2 volunteer Emma Hong, based on an interview in October 2020

“What’s your daily routne like? What do you do every day?” I ask two men.

“Sleeping, eating, look at phone,” says Kofilur. Khabirul nods in agreement.

“For 19 months?”

These two men’s experience tell us there is something broken about Singapore’s work injury claim system. Since we don’t know what goes on inside the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), we cannot detail what is going wrong with their cases, but the extremely long delays alone show that whatever the system is, it cannot be the best.

Islam Mohammad Khabirul, 30, and Rahman Mohammad Kofilur, 31, do not know each other. By sheer coincidence, they showed up at the same time at TWC2’s Cuff Road Project — our free meals programme for unemployed migrant workers. We were momentarily confused between the two of them, doing a double-take not only because they both used as their first names names starting with K, but also because, from their records,

  • both reside on the same road;
  • both have worked in Singapore for a little over five years as welders.
  • both hail from Bangladesh;
  • both worked at a shipyard for the same employer, Vigour Technologies, and
  • both injured their neck and back on the exact same day in March 2019 at the shipyard.

“Were you in the same accident?” we ask them.

“No,” says Khabirul. “No,” says Kofilur.

“How many people injured in the accident in which you were involved?”

“One, only me,” says Khabirul. “One, me,” says Kofilur.

Kofilur then adds that some time after the accident he heard from other workers in the community that there were two other injuries the same day that he was injured (1 March 2019). Altogether there were three accidents that day at the site, he says. They don’t know who the third victim was. In fact, Kofilur is only meeting Khabirul for the first time today.

The similarities are uncanny but they do not end there.

We look at the status of their work injury claims, and both are the same: that MOM is “investigating”. Exactly what the ministry is investigating is a mystery to both men.

Work injury compensation

The governing legislation is the Work Injury Compensation Act. For an injury to be within scope of this law, it has to be an injury caused “by an accident arising out of and in the course of the employee’s employment”.

In most instances this is not an obstacle. When the facts are clear that the incident occurred at work, or when the employer itself informs MOM that an accident occurred at work, the matter proceeds rapidly to medical treatment and computation of compensation.

From time to time however, TWC2 sees injury cases that drag on for a very long time. Perhaps the most common reason why so is that there is a dispute between employer and employee about whether the accident really occurred at work. It is possible that a worker may be making up the incident (though medical reports should throw a light on the matter), but we’ve also seen situations where employers, perhaps wanting to evade responsibility for work safety lapses or liability for compensation, strenuously deny that an accident occurred.

Neither Khabirul nor Kofilur can explain why their cases seem to be stuck. Neither man has any ongoing medical appointments. At this point, well over a year after their accidents, both seem at a glance to have recovered substantially and may be capable of returning to work.

But their Work Permits have long since been cancelled by their employer and they have been put on Special Passes, which, while allowing them to stay on in Singapore for resolution of their injury claims, do not allow them to work. Nor are they allowed to return home while their cases are still being considered by MOM.

In limbo

While Khabirul wants to stay in Singapore and get a new job as soon as possible, Kofilur is longing to go home to Bangladesh. In the folds of Kofilur’s wallet is a photo of his wife, whom he lovingly refers to as his “baby.” They have been married for ten years, but she is back in Bangladesh while he is in Singapore. They call each other every day. Kofilur hasn’t been able to send any money home since the injury, and his wife does not work.

Another item that Kofilur always keeps with him in his wallet is a letter which shows that on 14 February 2020, his lawyer wrote to MOM withdrawing the case from the ministry. Perhaps Kofilur just wanted the matter over and done with so he could go home, or the lawyer could help him sue the employer through the civil courts (instead of claiming compensation through the Work Injury Compensation Act). The latter route does not require Kofilur to continue staying in Singapore.

Strangely, MOM didn’t close his case. How can MOM not accept Kofilur’s stated wish to withdraw the case? We scratch our heads.

Kofilur cannot even confirm to us whether MOM has filed the letter, nor tell us what reply or other correspondence, if any, has passed between his lawyer and MOM.

And that was in February. It’s been another nine months since.

So, Khabirul and Kofilur just wait and wait — living their lives in a complete state of limbo and without control of their own fates. Anybody having to endure this kind of situation would lose a sense of time and intention. When asked about the past 19 months, they cannot even describe what they spend their time doing — beyond eating, sleeping… and just nothing.

What has dictated the last 19 months of their lives in Singapore is action or inaction from MOM. Should we be treating people this way?