By TWC2 volunteer Eden Kim based on an interview in November 2020

Nineteen months after the accident, Hossen Adnan was finally notified by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) about the proposed disability compensation. After a small computational hiccup, which was rectified soon enough, the proposed compensation was agreed to by all parties — employer, insurer and Adnan himself — and finalised the following month. Adnan received the payout in the form of a cheque a few weeks later.

The accident occurred on 6 March 2019, injuring his back, right thumb and left leg. The case was only concluded in late November 2020.

There were a few minor complications along the way, but nothing major except for the interruptions due to Covid-19. Nonetheless, to Adnan, what it meant was that he was out of work throughout the entire period, unable to support his family.

Adnan left his parents, three brothers and one sister in mid-2017 when he came to Singapore to join Excel Marine as a shipyard worker. He hasn’t seen them for over three years.

The injuries were caused by a fall from a staircase while Adnan was carrying a heavy load. An ambulance was called and he was taken to Ng Teng Fong General Hospital. He wasn’t warded but given medical leave which, after several renewals, totalled about six months.

Both he and the employer filed an injury report at MOM and thus began the “Wica process”.

“Wica” stands for Work Injury Compensation Act. It is the governing legislation for work injury claims. In essence, it requires a doctor to assess the degree of permanent residual disability following an injury and, depending on the doctor’s assessment of severity, a compensation amount is proposed.

For unclear reasons, the assessment didn’t begin until early 2020, about a year after the accident. And even then, because Adnan was injured at three different places (back, right thumb and left leg), he found himself being assessed for permanent disability in the thumb but not elsewhere.

TWC2 helped him by writing to the hospital to urge an early assessment date for his back and leg, but then Covid-19 came along and hospital appointments were massively disrupted. It took at least three or four months and several emails to both the hospital and MOM before an assessment date could be fixed. Even then, it was postponed to May, and then the hospital pushed it further to September.

In the meantime, Adnan had no income at all. Although he was on our free meals programme — he would stay with us on the programme for 21 months continuously — he still had to deal with rent and daily living expenses, such as phone bills and bus fare. TWC2 helped him out with rent money, phone top-ups and transport money.

In June 2020, his passport expired, and he needed money again to get it renewed.

According to Adnan, his boss tried to help too, also sending emails to the hospital asking for action. “My boss is really good and helpful,” Adnan tells us. “He helped me in bad times. Some bosses are really bad to their workers.”

The compensation cheque was finally issued in November 2020, with the insurance company mailing it to the boss. To save Adnan the trouble of wrangling with banks, the boss deposited the cheque for him directly into Adnan’s bank account.

Asked if, outside of delays by the hospital, other parties might also have contributed to the long wait, TWC2 president Debbie Fordyce said she didn’t think so. “I have no reason to think that [the others] didn’t do a good job,” she said. And when she learned that it was the boss who banked the cheque for Adnan, she added, “We are surprised when the boss just does the right thing.”

Adnan flew home on 1 December 2020, twenty-one months after the day he fell.

The key issue which cries out for attention is why Adnan had to remain jobless for so long. His medical leave ended six months after the accident, yet he remained out of work for fifteen months more until he went home in December 2020.

He wasn’t out of work by choice. He was not allowed to work.

For Singapore citizens and permanent residents, the most natural thing to do after a period of medical leave has come to an end is to return to the job. For foreign workers, this can happen too, especially if the period of medical leave is short and the employer has kept the Work Permit alive.

But in cases where the injury is moderately severe (even if recoverable) and the medical leave somewhat long, employers often cancel the Work Permit, or let it expire. The Ministry of Manpower then puts the worker on a Special Pass, which legalises his continued stay in Singapore for the purposes of medical treatment and compensation, but the Special Pass does not allow the worker to work.

Even when the medical leave is over, the worker is still not allowed to work.

Here is the reverse side of a worker’s Special Pass which makes the prohibition explicit:

Not allowing them to work is terribly burdensome on migrant workers. Although (ex-)employers are expected to continue to house and feed their (ex-)employees all through a Wica claim, migrant workers are not chickens. Giving them a coop and sprinkling grain around is nowhere enough. They have families who depend on them. Nor are employers happy to have to bear such costs either, with quite a few resorting to forced repatriation (illegal) to reduce their costs.

MOM is aware of this problem but their (new) policy response is to truncate the claim process at the six-month point and send the worker home.

This is not ideal. While there is merit in having a quicker process that arrives at a compensation decision sooner, sending them home thereafter is not in anyone’s best interest, especially if the worker has made a full recovery.

TWC2 urges a simple change to policy.

Migrant workers whose medical leave has ended (and therefore considered by their doctors to be fit to work), but whose Wica claim is still ongoing, yet have lost their previous jobs, should be allowed to find new jobs.

Many workers would welcome this. Many employers (in these Covid days) who are desperately short of workers, would welcome this. Singapore benefits because we retain these workers’ skills and experience.

The “send them home” response is an unthinking one, springing from an attitude towards migrant workers that treats them as commodities (or chickens), and seeing any worker who is injured as “damaged goods” — return to sender.