At TWC2’s sidewalk help desk, Liton (right) is being registered.

Writhing in pain, Liton was treated to a bumpy ride on the flatbed of a truck all the way from the shipyard at the far end of Tuas to a small doctor’s clinic in the Lavender area. We reckon it was about 30 km. The nearest hospital, which he was not taken to, would have been Ng Teng Fong General Hospital, about 10km away. Ng Teng Fong Hospital has a fully equipped accident and emergency department.

When Liton arrived at the general practitioner’s clinic in Lavender, the doctor said his injuries were too serious for him to handle, and he should be taken to a better equipped place. And so, Liton was put back on the lorry and bumped a further 3km to the Novena area where there is a private hospital and specialist clinics. An X-ray was taken, he was given painkillers, and sent back to his dormitory.

Liton has come to TWC2 for the first time. We register him into our database and ask some general questions to see if there are areas where he needs help. We find nothing particularly unusual about his case, which is not the same as saying all is going well. What we mean is that there are the usual problems!

“Did the doctor certify you for any medical leave?” we ask Liton.

“I don’t know,” he says. “All paper the company man take.”

Shouldn’t medical records always be considered the property of the patient? Why did the clinic pass medical records to third parties?

By the evening, in the dorm, the painkiller injection began to wear off. In the middle of the night, Liton was in severe pain again. With the help of a roommate, he called an ambulance, which took him to, yes, Ng Teng Fong Hospital, the logical, nearest hospital. Another X-ray was done, more painkillers given, and this time, Liton could tell us that the doctor there gave him seven days’ medical leave.

That eventful day was in early September 2022, more than a year ago. As of the time of the interview, Liton is still undergoing physiotherapy.

Medical leave wages

Liton worked in a shipyard. The incident happened as he was going down a step ladder into the hold of a ship. He slipped and fell about three metres and, he said, he was barely able to get up by himself. Luckily, it was a busy workplace and there were many workers around, so help came quickly.

The seven days of medical leave that Ng Teng Fong General Hospital gave him was later extended several times with each doctor’s appointment to a total of about four months. At TWC2, the first thing we ask workers when they tell us about medical leave is to ask if they have been paid their medical leave wages. It is remarkable how often workers are either not paid, or not paid the correct amount. It’s the rare migrant worker who even knows what formula to apply to check whether the amount he receives is correct. This is where the help TWC2 provides is crucial.

Section 17(1) of the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) says:

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.

“Temporary incapacity” is synonymous with medical leave, and compensation for temporary incapacity is the same as medical leave wages.

In Section 4(1) of the First Schedule, a rather complicated formula for calculating medical leave wages is laid out. In essence, the amount is linked to the employee’s Average Monthly Earnings (AME) in the twelve months prior to the accident. Section 4(1) begins:

(a) for the first 60 days of hospitalisation leave — the employee’s AME;
(b) for any subsequent days of hospitalisation leave — two‑thirds of the employee’s AME;

and then goes on to add more detail.

We ask Liton what his gross earnings were in a typical month while he was working. He says it fluctuated between $800 and as much as $1,200, but perhaps the average was around $900.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that he should have received about $600 in medical leave wages for each of the four months he was on medical leave. Liton had payment details (supplied by the employer) on his phone and these showed gross amounts in the region of $300 – $400 for those months.

Since the numbers do not seem to add up, we send Liton to a case officer in TWC2 for a more careful look at the figures.

Four lakhs fifty thousand

Our conversation turns to how much he paid to get this job in a shipyard. Just about every worker we’ve ever met from shipyards have had to pay for their jobs. The only question seems to be: how much?

“Four lakhs fifty thousand taka,” says Liton. “But that was in 2019.”

Since Liton joined the company in November 2019, and would have likely paid his agent in September or October the same year, we look back at the exchange rate prevailing in the second half of that year. It was about SGD1.00 = BDT62. That meant that he paid about $7,260 for this job, his first ever in Singapore.

“Was this amount only for the job, or did it include training?” we ask.

“No training,” Liton replies.

He adds that the payment was made in Bangladesh to an agent who was a fellow national. This is typical for first-time migrant workers coming to Singapore. They would not know any agent here, and would only have dealt with someone in their home country. However, this does not mean that all the money stayed in Bangladesh. Given such a large sum, there would have been plenty for sharing with various vested interests in Singapore too.

We’ve heard of cases where parties in Singapore, including the employer or a manager in the company, were among those who got a cut of the agent’s fee. In Liton’s case, however, we have no reason to think that it happened that way too. We simply don’t know.

Liton is smart enough to guess where we are going with this thread. He volunteers that it took him two years to clear his debts. He had borrowed this amount from four relatives and friends.

“Two years, not include Corona time,” he hastens to add. “In 2020, many months shipyard closed and no work. Only after that I can start saving.”

This meant that it was mostly 2021 and 2022 when he had enough income to put aside about $300 a month to repay his creditors. However, almost as soon as the debts were cleared, in September 2022, his fell down a step ladder and his employment ended with a nasty thud. Except for four months of medical leave wages, he has been without income since.

Such is a life of a migrant worker in Singapore.