Sunday, 20 January 2013

MOM’s response to media queries on Yawning Bread’s blog post “Injured worker awarded $69,000 in compensation, employer not paying”

Ministry of Manpower, 18 January 2013

TWC2 Treasurer Alex Au has made serious allegations in his 14 January 2013 post “Injured worker awarded $69,000 in compensation, employer not paying” which have impugned the integrity of the Manpower Ministry and our officers. These allegations are entirely false.

The chronological details in the case involving Mr Uzzal Kumar Mondal Upendra Nath Mondal are laid out below. It is important to note that:

(a) Recovery of Mr Uzzal’s work injury compensation and prosecution of his employer for not making this payment are two separate processes, and MOM officers did their job in both respects.

The amount owed to Mr Uzzal is a civil debt. Like all non-payment of civil debts, Mr Uzzal would have to enforce the payment through the Bailiff Section of the Subordinate Courts. As Mr Uzzal has retained the services of a lawyer, this would have been clearly explained to him. Notwithstanding this, the Ministry referred Mr Uzzal’s case to the Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC) for assistance. MWC offered to provide all necessary assistance to Mr Uzzal to enforce the payment, including the filing of documents and payment of stamp fees and court expenses. Through his lawyer, Mr Uzzal declined MWC’s offer of assistance.

In parallel, MOM also commenced an investigation with a view to prosecuting the employer for failing to pay compensation to Mr Uzzal, which is an offence under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA). To ensure fairness, MOM conducts such independent investigations to ascertain the facts of the case. Only when the investigation is complete can prosecution action be taken i.e. charges filed in court.

As part of the investigation, MOM interviewed both the employer and Mr Uzzal on 26 December 2012. Importantly, Mr Uzzal was also briefed on his options for enforcing the compensation payment during this interview. Apart from the avenue of the Subordinate Courts, Mr Uzzal could enforce the compensation payment through application of Section 40 of the WICA. This option has two downsides. First, while this allows the courts to rule that compensation be paid to the worker if the employer is successfully convicted, payment is in fact not guaranteed. If the employer is unable to pay for whatever reason, the employer would be jailed in lieu of payment, and the debt would be extinguished. Second, the prosecution process would typically take longer than enforcement of payment through the Bailiff Section of the Subordinate Courts. Mr Uzzal was briefed on both options, and through his lawyer, Mr Uzzal asked that MOM apply Section 40 of the WICA when prosecuting the employer.

In the meantime, MOM has forfeited the employer’s security bond for the worker, and barred the employer from hiring foreign workers.

(b) There is a separate and concurrent investigation with a view to prosecuting the employer under the Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Act, and Mr Uzzal was interviewed in Jan 2013 in connection with this investigation.

Mr Uzzal recorded his statement in Bengali, with an interpreter present throughout the interview with the MOM officer. The interview focused on WSH questions such as whether Mr Uzzal received safety training and whether risk assessments were performed before work. It was not, as Mr Au made it out to be, related to the work injury compensation order. On two occasions, both the MOM officer and the interpreter highlighted to Mr Uzzal that the statement recorded was for the purpose of investigating the accident under the WSH Act.

As there were some inconsistencies in Mr Uzzal’s statement, the MOM officer had reminded him to state the truth, and that he may face prosecution if he provided false information. At no point did the MOM officer try to “harass” Uzzal or worse, “undermine” the work injury compensation order. This was confirmed by the interpreter, who was present throughout the interview.

MOM Committed to Assisting Injured Workers

MOM is committed to ensuring that the WIC claim process is fair and expeditious. Our records showed that 80% of all cases are resolved within 3 months. Mr Uzzal’s case was among the exceptions. To accuse MOM of being “derelict in its duties”, as well as to insinuate that MOM was “unhappy with Uzzal going to the media” and using the “interrogation” as a way of “punishing him” is irresponsible of Mr Au. It would have been the responsible thing to come to MOM if Mr Au or TWC2 had any queries, and alert MOM, if he or TWC2 felt there were any issues with Mr Uzzal’s interview. But Mr Au did not do so, and chose to simply publish the inaccuracies without checking the facts of the case. Such inaccurate articles are unhelpful, and addressing these irresponsible allegations detracts from the Ministry’s day-to-day work of ensuring that workers are protected under the law and derelict employers are prosecuted.

In light of the facts presented above, Mr Au should do the right thing and remove the inaccurate post immediately.

For media’s background info

Under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA), employers are required to pay the compensation determined by the Commissioner for Labour to the claimant within 21 days from the service of the Notice of Assessment or after the order is made. Employers are also required under WICA to maintain work injury compensation insurance for (i) all employees doing manual work and, (ii) non-manual employees earning $1,600 or less a month. Interest can also be charged on the compensation due, if the employer delays payment to the worker.

Under WICA, errant employers can be fined up to $10,000 and/or jailed up to 12 months for each of these offences.

Claimants who face difficulty with the recovery proceedings are advised to approach MOM for assistance.

Chronology of events

- 25 October 2012
The Commissioner for Labour determines that the compensation amount payable by employer to Mr Uzzal amounted to $69,838, and payment is due by 15 November 2012.

- 5 December 2012
After being informed that payment has not been made and attempts to persuade employer to pay failed, MOM begins the process of prosecuting the employer, including scheduling of interviews with both the employer and worker as part of investigations.

MOM also refers Mr Uzzal’s case to Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC) for humanitarian assistance, including financial assistance for enforcement of compensation payment with Bailiff Section of Subordinate Courts.

- 18 December 2012
MOM informs Mr Uzzal’s lawyers, Dominion LLC, that MWC has offered to pay for enforcement of compensation payment.

- 21 December 2012
Dominion LLC replies that Mr Uzzal declines MWC’s assistance and intends to apply s40 of Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA), which allows the courts to order compensation be paid to the worker upon successful conviction of non-compensation.

- 26 December 2012
As part of investigations under WICA, both Mr Uzzal and the employer are separately interviewed.

- 8 January 2013
As part of concurrent investigations under the Workplace Safety and Health Act, a statement is taken from Mr Uzzal.

Blogger clashes with Manpower Ministry
Alex Au refuses to remove post about injured foreign worker
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 19 Jan 2013

BLOGGER Alex Au has been asked to take down a post which accused the Manpower Ministry of failing to help a Bangladeshi construction worker to receive injury compensation.

But the 60-year-old rejected the ministry's request yesterday, saying he stood by what he wrote.

His post highlighted the case of Mr Uzzal Kumar Mondal Upendra Nath Mondal, who was using a hacking machine in a bathroom in a Housing Board flat in 2010 when his safety glasses slipped off due to the vibrations. The 36-year-old was hit by a chip of tiling, leaving him with 50 per cent vision in his right eye.

Last October, Mr Uzzal's employer was ordered to pay him $69,838 by Nov 15 after the case was heard by the Commissioner of Labour. But it turned out that the firm, Zheng Yang Construction, had not bought insurance for the worker, who has still not received his compensation.

On Monday, Mr Au claimed on his Yawning Bread blog that Mr Uzzal had been "interrogated" for four hours by an officer from the ministry. He questioned whether this had been done to punish the worker for giving an interview to Chinese newspaper Lianhe Zaobao, which published a story on him last month.

Mr Au added that the ministry had "been derelict in its duties, failing to put in place any system at all for the care and support of injured workers". Yesterday, it responded by saying that the allegations were "entirely false" and the blogger should have checked the facts before publishing. "Mr Au should do the right thing and remove the post immediately," said a spokesman.

He added that officers from the ministry had fulfilled their responsibilities to help Mr Uzzal receive his money and to prosecute his employer for not buying work insurance and compensating him. They had explained to him that he could go to the Bailiff Section of the Subordinate Courts, which has the power to seize and sell his employer's assets.

The spokesman said Mr Uzzal was referred to non-governmental group the Migrant Workers' Centre. It offered to pay for the court fees, but he declined. Ministry officers also told him that his employer could be prosecuted under the Work Injury Compensation Act for not coming up with the payment. He chose this option. The spokesman said Mr Uzzal's interview last week was to investigate whether his employer had breached any rules under the Workplace Safety and Health Act.

He added that there were some inconsistencies in the worker's statement and the officer had "reminded him to state the truth". But at no point did anyone try to "harass" Mr Uzzal or undermine his attempts to get his compensation payment, said the spokesman. He added that this was confirmed by a Bengali interpreter who was present at the interview.

Yesterday, the ministry sent Mr Au an e-mail denying his allegations and giving its version of events. The blogger - who is the treasurer of migrant rights group Transient Workers Count Too - responded by saying: "I find it hard to understand why it is taking so long to investigate this case when having valid insurance is a yes or no question." He added that the ministry should have "been more considerate towards Uzzal's long wait".

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