Uzzal Kumar Mondal won his case at the ‘Labour Court’ and was awarded compensation totalling $69,838. A workplace accident left him virtually blind in his right eye. The compensation order was issued on 25 October 2012. His employer has stubbornly not paid despite being given a deadline of 21 days from the date of the court order. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is not lifting a finger to help him get what is due to him.
Quite the contrary. In the second week of January, an MOM officer called him back and interrogated him. For four hours, according to Uzzal, he was talked to constantly. The officer asked him all sorts of questions about the accident all over again, at one point saying something to the effect that if his details today did not coincide with his earlier statements, there would be “problems” for him.
What was meant by that?
Uzzal felt harassed throughout. He felt that the officer was intent on tripping him up, and fishing for ways to reverse the court order; perhaps even looking for a way to prosecute him for lying under oath.
A bit of clarification is necessary here. The ‘Labour Court’ is not really a court. It’s a kind of tribunal, headed by a Commissioner or Assistant Commissioner of Labour. Its decisions are not judicial but part of the executive branch of government. Nonetheless, they can be enforced by law. Defiance can be prosecuted in a District Court.
But instead of enforcing the order, there seems to be an officer within MOM trying to undermine it.
At right is the order issued by the Assistant Commissioner Gabriel Tan made on 25 October 2012, while below is the letter accompanying it telling the employer that they have 21 days to pay up.
The point is this: What business is a case officer’s to question and undermine a formal tribunal’s order? At the tribunal, the employer had a chance to present his case, as did the worker. There was also a recommendation by doctors on a medical board — appointed as part of the work injury compensation process — that Uzzal should receive compensation. The Assistant Commissioner weighed the facts and arguments and ruled in favour of the worker.
There is no word of the employer appealing. This is possibly because under Section 29(3) of the Work Injury Compensation Act, an employer must first deposit the ordered sum with the Commissioner of Labour before he can appeal.
What Uzzal has heard is that the employer never bought work injury insurance for him, and is thus unwilling to part with his own money.
Well, in that case, the company can be charged for at least two offences:
- not paying Uzzal within 21 days of the order — Section 35(2)(a) of the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA)
- not buying insurance — Section 23(1) of WICA.
To add teeth to the law, Parliament saw fit to make company officers personally liable under the law even if the employer is a company. Section 36(1) says that “the officer as well as the body corporate shall be guilty of the offence and shall be liable to be proceeded against and punished accordingly,” if an officer of the company (i.e. director, manager, etc) is shown to be the one acting or failing to act, and leading to the offence. The penalty is a fine of $10,000 or twelve months’ imprisonment or both for each of the above offences.
* * * * *
Uzzal’s accident occurred on 9 June 2010 — two-and-a-half years ago. The vibration from a hacking machine caused his safety glasses to slip off allowing a chip of tiling to rocket into his right eye. Five or six workers witnessed the accident, and there is little doubt that it occurred during work and therefore comes within the ambit of the Work Injury Compensation Act. The court order is thus right and proper.
Since the accident however, he has had no job, no income and no housing provided. He’s had to borrow from friends and depend on what little charity he can find. Try to put yourself in his place — how would you manage for over two years?
So already, the Ministry of Manpower has been derelict in its duties, failing to put in place any system at all for the care and support of injured workers. It cannot deny responsibility for the suffering it inflicts on people.
Add to this: firstly inaction over enforcing the order and prosecuting the employer; and secondly, what appears to be an attempt to undermine a tribunal’s formal order. Exactly what are the ministry’s true priorities?
* * * * *
Late December 2012, Uzzal’s plight was featured in a Chinese newspaper. Although our mainstream papers are never outspoken in their criticism of the government, just describing Uzzal’s case — how the employer is getting away with not paying up while the ministry does nothing — is enough for people to see where the problem lay.
Might it be possible that the ministry was unhappy with Uzzal going to the media to highlight his situation? Unhappy with the implied criticism of the ministry?
Was the four-hour interrogation a way of punishing him? If so, it wouldn’t be the first time that ministry is more concerned about defending itself and cracking down on critics than doing right by workers.
* * * * *
Uzzal’s is hardly an isolated case. There are thousands of work injury cases every year and the typical guy spends 6 months to two years destitute, wandering the back lanes of Singapore. But at least most eventually get compensation.
However, every year too, I see several like Uzzal, whose employers refuse to pay up despite a formal order. Employers who broke the law not buying insurance, but are not prosecuted. And the men are left with no help at all. And then at some point, the ministry says the case is closed and the worker is denied permission to stay on in Singapore. He is sent home without a cent.
It is shocking that an entire bureaucracy, paid lavishly with our tax dollars, does not see it as their responsibility to serve, to design solutions or even to enforce the law.