31 August 2022. Our doorbell rang. When we opened the door, we met Chen Le for the first time. This 37-year-old migrant worker from China was unusual because he spoke to us in English.
“How did you get to know about us?” It’s a question we’re usually curious about when someone shows up at our door without first contacting us through phone, WhatsApp or social media. For many migrant workers, making a trip all the way downtown is a considerable investment in time; it is usually more sensible to first reach us by other means until we really need to meet.
“I was at the courthouse, and they gave me your address,” Chen said.
“And why were you at the courthouse?”
“I want to sue my landlord for defamation,” he replied. (We couldn’t help but notice that he knew the word ‘defamation’. )
We needed to sit down. This promised to be an interesting tale.
Chen had been renting a room in Sengkang town until recently when he fell out with his landlord, a certain Alice. In the early hours of 25 August 2022, he came to know that Alice had put up a Facebook post in which he was pictured and his personal identification number (FIN) revealed – the latter potentially an offence under the Personal Data Protection Act. The post contained a comment that landlords should be careful about renting rooms to him.
According to Chen, the dispute centred on her rebuffing his request to inform the Housing and Development Board (HDB) that he was staying there. We can understand his interest in having his address properly registered but we do not know why she was unwilling to accede to his request.
Chen went to the police on 26 August 2022 to file a police report over the alleged defamation and harassment.
By the time he came to TWC2, the Facebook post had already been taken down, and his concern that such a false and derogatory post might damage his future employment prospects in Singapore should be abating. But he still seemed incensed by the matter; it’s a matter of principle, Chen said. (He knew and used the word ‘principle’.)
While he was telling us all this, we noticed that he was injured on his hand and his ankle. The ankle was swollen and the wound there looked quite bad. We waited for him to mention his injuries, but he kept expressing his frustrations with his landlord. His priorities were surprising.
We finally had to butt in. “Are you injured?”
“Why aren’t you mentioning it?”
The hand and the ankle were separate injuries, two days apart. Chen said they happened while he was at work installing electronic door locks. His hand was caught between a ladder and a closing door on 15 August 2022, he said, and his ankle was hurt when he tried to stop a runaway trolley with his foot on the 17th.
The 15th was his first day on the job. He had arrived only two days earlier, on 13 August 2022.
He informed his management about both incidents but was told that since his Work Permit had not yet been issued, he could not go to a clinic (not true). He was advised to purchase over-the-counter painkillers from a supermarket. It didn’t sound as if the initial injuries were all that bad, but the ankle wound must have gotten infected since then for lack of attention.
Our immediate advice was that he should go to the emergency department straight away. Not only was treatment necessary, but he needed to have workplace accidents documented and an insurance claim filed. This was especially as he was scheduled to leave Singapore on 9 September, and he needed more time than that for the injuries to heal properly. Filing a claim would give him a bit more time.
Why was he leaving Singapore on the 9th, less than a month after arriving here?
Because he had already lost his job. His Work Permit had just been cancelled.
To our advice that he should go to the emergency department, Chen expressed concern over costs. We had to set the matter straight, telling him that under Singapore law, the employer of a foreign employee would be responsible for medical care. This was news to him, having been misled by his employer from the beginning.
It is our standard protocol, whenever we hear a worker telling us that his job had been terminated, to ask whether his due wages had been fully paid up. Readers may be surprised how often they are not.
Chen Le didn’t seem sure. So, we had to ask a series of questions to make a rough determination. We asked him how many days he had worked (7 to 10 days), what his basic salary was ($$1,700 per month) and how much in payment he received (only $260) A few back-of-the-envelope calculations led us to believe that he had been short-paid by a few hundred dollars. If he had worked seven days, his basic salary alone should have been around $500. If he had worked ten days, it should have been around $710. We didn’t factor in overtime since we didn’t know how many hours he had put in.
By our calculations, the short-payment was between $240 and $450, possibly more if there had been overtime work.
Chen recalled what he was told by the management – that the cost for his medical examination and for the Settling-in Programme (post-arrival orientation) had been deducted from his salary. If true, this would be illegal. The employer has to be responsible for the cost of medical examination and the onboarding processes.
Chen agreed he would file a salary claim. But the more urgent thing was to get him to hospital.
At the hospital
We thought he would be treated as an outpatient, since he clearly was able to walk to our front door (how serious could it be?). So, we were surprised when, later that evening, he phoned us to say that the doctor insisted that he be warded for surgery the next day – something about “removing infection”. Once again Chen was worried about costs. Once again we assured him that the employer ought to have insurance cover for that.
We had to reassure him again because he had earlier contacted his (former) employer to tell them that he had been hospitalised. According to Chen, the boss (or whoever he spoke to in the company) was adamant he should not be seeing a doctor without a valid Work Permit.
This is simply not true, but seems to be a common line used by employers to avoid having to claim from their insurer for medical expenses. In a recent story, For an experienced worker, some things improve, others remain the same, the company’s enforcers used the same line to deny medical treatment to Bangladeshi worker Khan.
TWC2’s General Manager, Ethan Guo, visited Chen Le at Singapore General Hospital on 2 September 2022, the day after the (foot) surgery. Perhaps Chen might be discharged today and would need help walking. Instead, Ethan learned that the hand surgeon was not prepared to discharge Chen because he wanted to be sure that the swelling in the hand was not due to an infection. Chen was put on medication and was to be monitored for a few days.
Meanwhile, the doctors helped file an industrial accident report.
While Ethan was sitting with Chen in another part of the hospital, away from the ward, a bit of drama took place near the bed. Neither Ethan nor Chen was aware of it at the time. It was only after Ethan had left, and Chen was returning to the ward that the nurse told him that a group of men from his company had come to see him. Not expecting any more visitors, Chen was put on guard. He peeped through the window but did not recognise any of the men.
Nothing good would come out of this, he thought to himself. It was clearly an attempt at intimidation, maybe even forced repatriation.
Chen called the police. He was then asked to go to the Cantonment offices of the Police Force to make a formal police report. Chen made his way there immediately, in his hospital pajamas.
At Cantonment, the investigating officer called the employer after getting Chen’s report and told the employer that there was now a police case and that henceforth the company should not have any direct engagement with Chen. That was a good outcome.
However, by the time Chen got back to the hospital, he had been out of the ward for five hours, and the system had automatically discharged him due to the long absence. He lost his bed. All they could do was to put him in a cot in the corridor to wait for another bed. The wait turned out to be quite long; there was much coming and going and he couldn’t get any sleep. Finally, he got impatient and began to protest volubly. The police were called. The same investigating officer got involved.
“Mr Chen, I see you are very busy today,” he said.
Chen was discharged the following day after the doctors were satisfied that the condition of the hand was not serious.
TWC2 then put him on Project Roof, our rent subsidy programme, so that he’d have a place to stay. After his dispute with the ex-landlord, he had been sleeping in a coffee shop.
Injury “not work-related”
In early November, Chen was asked to go to the Ministry of Manpower. There, he was told that both injuries were deemed to be not work-related. Apparently, the “investigation” consisted of asking Chen’s co-worker what happened and the co-worker said no accident took place on either occasion, never mind the doctors’ reports.
Chen said the co-worker was none other than the boss’ nephew.
This injury did not happen, said the boss’ nephew
At first, Chen wanted to appeal the decision, but after looking at
- the costs involved
- the low chance of reversing the decisions that the injuries were not work-related
- the low chance, even if the decisions were reversed, that there would be a finding of permanent disability (the chief basis for compensation)
Chen decided against pursuing the matter further.
What was important was that the hospital and surgery bills were sent to the employer.
He went home soon after, and TWC2 gave him some financial help, especially covering the cost of inbound quarantine then in effect in China.
After discharge from hospital, Chen filed a salary claim. As mentioned above, the amount involved was not large. Even so, this would prove to be the high point of his stay with us.
At the mediation session organised by the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) on or around 23 September 2022, the employer was represented by the Human Resources Manager. Following TADM’s rules, Chen had to represent himself.
According to what he told us after that, the manager “made a lot of noise” in the meeting. In the end, the mediator had to firmly tell her that based on the law, the company owed Chen backpay. The amount had been calculated beforehand to be $135 – which was curiously less than what we estimated to be the shortfall (but we do not know why).
She finally relented and handed over the amount in cash. She was visibly upset while doing so, said Chen. “Her hand was trembling.”
He never got around to suing.