Data from Transient Workers Count Too’s Cuff Road Project for 2011 shows that slightly more than half the cases that come to our volunteers stationed at our soup kitchen are injury cases. Why does the system fail injured workers so badly, that they are destitute?

The crux of the problem is that injured workers are at the mercy of medical and bureaucratic processes that are not coherent with each other. Five key tracks can be identified:

  • The track that starts from medical treatment and leads on to assessment of permanent incapacity to determine compensation under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA).
  • The track described as “medical status” in the diagram below, providing for medical leave and possibly a period where he is certified only for “light duties”. This track however, assumes that the worker remains in the employment of an employer.
  • The third track is his employment or work permit status. If his permit has been cancelled, but he is still under treatment or assessment, he is typically put under a Special Pass, a condition of which is that he must not engage in work. As you can see, it conflicts with the assumption contained in the second track.
  • Fourthly, the law makes certain provisions for his continuing income and upkeep, but as will be explained below, there are ambiguities.
  • Fifthly, the reality income-wise is often very different from the law. This gap between theory and reality opened up because enforcement has been patchy at best.


Typical cases

Typically, an injured worker who comes to TWC2 is seen to stay on in Singapore for six to twelve months after his accident. His experience can be represented by a timeline thus:

In the above example of a worker, he is under treatment for five months, of which for three-and-a-half months, he is on medical leave (“MC”). For about six or seven weeks, he is certified fit for light duties — if he has a job to go back to.

When his medical treatment has run its course, a process to assess his permanent incapacity commences. This bureaucratic process can be bedevilled by employer’s objections. Not only can the employer object to the assessment of incapacity, he can even object to the fact that it was a work-related injury. Finally, in determining the amount of compensation, which is linked to the worker’s historical and future expected earnings, the process can descend into a quagmire, for lack of reliable historical data. Some employers keep very poor records of wages, or worse, have every intent of falsifying those records for his own benefit.

Through the wrangling over WICA assessment, the worker is usually able to work to an extent (unless he is severely incapacitated), but . . .

The third track highlights the legal straitjacket he is in. The employer typically would have cancelled his work permit soon after a serious injury has occurred; he would not want to continue paying the levy for the worker. The Ministry of Manpower routinely replace the cancelled work permit with a Special Pass. Unfortunately, a condition of the Special Pass is that the worker cannot engage in any work. Violation of this condition is an offence.

WICA has a provision for income for the patient who has been “temporarily incapacitated”, legalese for someone who has been given an MC (medical leave). It says:

“Where temporary incapacity whether total or partial results from the injury, the employee shall be entitled to full earnings for a period of 60 days if he is hospitalised and 14 days if he is not hospitalised and thereafter to a further periodical payment of an amount equal to two-thirds of his earnings during the incapacity or during a period of one year, whichever period is shorter.”

It sounds good, but in practice quickly becomes another area of dispute. What does “full earnings” mean? Administratively, the Ministry of Manpower interprets this to mean the average historical earnings of the worker for the six months immediately prior to the accident. Again, while it sounds straightforward, in practice, it is an invitation to trouble. Many small employers do not keep records properly, or are determined to falsify them. The failure of the tax and manpower authorities to insist on detailed pay slips with copies given to employees, and the failure to insist that payments should be routed through banks (thus providing an audit trail) has created manifold opportunities for fudging.

The net result is that almost all the injured workers who come to TWC2 report that they are not receiving their legally-mandated “MC pay”. The reality is that they get no money at all.

Worse is to come. When he has recovered enough, he is no longer on medical leave (MC), and at that point, the employer’s obligation to pay him MC pay comes to an end as well.However, Section 3 of Part II of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Regulations may kick in:

“The employer shall be responsible for and bear the costs of the foreign employee’s upkeep and maintenance in Singapore.”

This is a rather unsatisfactory clause due to potential ambiguity. Is the employer still the employer after he has terminated the worker and cancelled the work permit? What is meant by “upkeep and maintenance”? These difficulties are compounded by weak enforcement and the reality is that many injured workers get nothing at all.

Right at the end of the processes is the payout of the WICA compensation for permanent incapacity. This is not an assured thing. The employer may have been successful at getting a ruling that the accident was not work-related, or that no permanent incapacity has resulted.

Moreover, a distinction can be made between getting a sum awarded, and actually collecting that sum of money. Employers may have declared bankruptcy or closed down between the date of the accident and the date of the award. From TWC2’s observation, the Ministry of Manpower sees its role ending at the point of the award, regardless of collection. The worker’s Special Pass is terminated and he has to be repatriated, whether or not he manages to get his money. If he wants to purse his claim to the award, he has to hire a lawyer (fees!) to file a civil suit in his absence. For low-wage workers who have been injured and left destitute for months, this is totally unrealistic.

Prolonged cases

The next diagram is similar to the one above, except that it represents those workers who languish in Singapore for over a year. About 10 to  20 percent of the injury cases TWC2 sees at our Cuff Road Food Programme would be like this.

The chief difference between the two diagrams is that in the latter, the employer’s obligation for MC pay ends 12 months after the date of the accident, even when the worker is still on an MC.

But the second diagram also illustrates how ridiculous it is that an injured worker is, in reality, often left with no income and support at all for more than 12 months; in a few cases, as long as 24 months.


Illegal work

Nobody wants to starve to death. And getting a place to sleep is impossible in Singapore if one has no money. There is a huge pressure to find illegal work among injured workers, despite it being a violation of the Special Pass issued to them.

This puts them in an absurd jeopardy, for if they are caught working, they can be convicted in a court, with unpredictable effects on their other, albeit rightful, claims .