A typical farmstead in rural India

Selvakumar first came to Singapore in 1997. He has spent 22 of the last 25 years here.

He has an ongoing workplace injury insurance claim, and upon its conclusion, he will leave Singapore with little chance of returning. Kumar worked as a carpenter and has served his employer faithfully for a long time. Unlike other workers who may switch jobs quite frequently, this carpentry job was only his second job in Singapore.

Unfortunately, on 17 September 2022, his hand was caught on a saw blade, and now, despite surgery, Kumar cannot fully close his hand.

Kumar attributes the injury to a lack of concentration due to insufficient rest: “This [was a] busy week…I not get much sleep, then cutting my hand,” he tells TWC2.

Driven by low wages, workers often rely on overtime opportunities and work long hours in order to earn that extra bit more. As a result, injuries can occur in even the safest workplaces. Ironically, Kumar describes his workplace as very safe.

Low wages also mean that workers struggle to build up savings. Despite having worked more than two decades in Singapore, Kumar’s small savings were depleted within five months of the accident. He tells us that the oldest of his three children (15 years old) will have to give up his dream of higher education now that Kumar can no longer pay for the tuition.

When asked if he feels better off now than when he first prepared to leave India in 1997, Kumar replies, “Same problem… no money have. No money for children to get married.”

No medical leave wages

Kumar’s financial desperation is compounded by Singapore’s bureaucratic foot-dragging. Although entitled to medical leave wages during his recovery, he has not received a cent in the five months since the accident. It’s a mockery of the law; mockery that remarkably causes no embarrasment to our Ministry of Manpower.

The Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) uses the team “Compensation for temporary incapacity” to mean medical leave wages. Section 17 of WICA says:

Compensation for temporary incapacity

17.—(1) Where any work injury results in the temporary incapacity of an employee, the compensation the employer is liable under this Act to pay to the employee is a periodical payment that is —

(a) an amount specified in the First Schedule; and

(b) payable not later than the same day as earnings would have been payable to the employee under the contract of service under which the employee was employed at the time of the accident, except that the interval between periodical payments must not exceed one month.

(emphasis by TWC2)

The intent of the legislation is thus very clear: that an injured worker should receive a monthly payment at least once monthly while he is on medical leave. The amount he should receive is set out in the First Schedule, but generally speaking, it should be about two-thirds of what he was earning prior to the accident.

Singapore’s legislation is pretty good. Where we fail is in poor or badly-delayed implementation, and a shocking indifference to the suffering of others resulting from that disgraceful work ethic.

The question of validity

How is this tardiness excused? (Note the word ‘excused’ rather than ‘justified’.)

It is through a highly bureaucratic contortion known as a question of validity. It’s like this: for the provisions of WICA to kick in, the case must first be accepted as a valid WICA case. Kumar filed his WICA claim in October 2022, a month after the accident. Four months on – as at the second week of February 2023 – the status was still one of MOM and/or the insurer “checking validity” of the claim.

Now, here’s the thing: The accident happened about 10:30am on a Wednesday (a working day) while Kumar was at the company’s worksite. None other than the boss drove him to Singapore General Hospital where he was warded for one night.

WICA does not require a worker to prove that the employer caused the accident in any way. WICA covers all personal injuries that are

“caused to an employee by an accident arising out of and in the course of the employee’s employment with an employer”

( WICA, section 7).

The date-time and circumstances of Kumar’s accident and the fact that the boss was at hand to take him to hospital suggests that the accident would be within the scope of WICA. So why is the ministry still “checking” five months on?

It is also worth noting that Section 5 of the legislation itself says

“The purpose of this Act is to ensure that employees receive compensation for work injuries in a fair and expeditious manner…”

As with all laws within its ambit, the Ministry of Manpower is charged with the responsibility of implementing WICA: specifically to ensure expeditious payment of compensation (medical leave wages) no less frequently than the normal payment of wages, which naturally includes being expeditious about ascertaining the validity of the injury claim.

What does the future hold for Kumar?

If Kumar’s claim is accepted as valid, Kumar is likely, at some point, not only to receive his much-delayed medical leave wages but also compensation for the permanent disability he now has.

And then he will have to go home. Kumar owns a small piece of family land he will use for agriculture when he returns to India, as his injury has made construction work and carpentry impossible. In a way, he is one of the luckier ones. A recent TWC2 survey of 200 Tamil and Bangladeshi migrant workers indicates that nearly 30 percent of respondents who had worked in Singapore for more than four years had sold land to cover debts or agency fees. Luckily Kumar has never had to sell any land. Hence he can transition back to agriculture as his family’s primary means of income.

Kumar does not regret coming to Singapore. On the contrary, he professes a great love for the city and feels proud of his work here. When times were good, he could pay for the weddings of both of his sisters and provide his children with an education.

Nonetheless, it’s all ending in a bittersweet way. After spending 22 of the last 25 years working in Singapore, Kumar believes he is no better off than when he first arrived.