Wednesday 16 October 2013

Some runaway workers fake their injuries, say bosses

They claim some do so to try to get compensation, others to moonlight
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 14 Oct 2013

BOSSES with runaway injured foreign workers feel they have been wrongly accused of ill-treating the men and want their voices heard.

More have been going to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in recent months claiming that the workers have faked accidents or injuries. Foreign workers who are assessed to be injured are issued special passes and not allowed to work.

Some employers also contacted The Straits Times to share their side of the story after it published a report late last month on injured workers running away from dormitories. ST interviewed bosses of more than 30 firms in the marine and construction sectors, who altogether have about 200 runaway workers, last week.

They say their reputations have been sullied by the workers who claimed to have resorted to running away after incurring injuries, to escape alleged threats by their employers to send them home.

Mr Wong Chan Ching, managing director of Sin Norm Engineering, said: "I have never owed any of my workers any salary and never threatened to send them home. Yet, they insist on running away."

They say the problem of runaway workers is worsening. The firms used to have one or two workers running away each year. But since the start of this year, each has an average of six workers who refuse to stay in company housing after getting injured.

Some employers suspect that the workers were inflicting injuries on themselves or faking accidents with no eye-witnesses at the scene.

SPG Marine director Lim Tek Seng says some lawyers have encouraged workers to fake the accidents by promising them big sums in work injury compensation.

The bosses also say the workers ran away because they wanted to moonlight and earn more money. A number of them have caught these workers doing odd jobs in markets and home renovation projects. Workers can earn about $60 to $80 a day doing these jobs compared with about $30 a day working for their employers.

The bosses say the ministry can help by prosecuting workers who make false claims or moonlight. They also want such errant workers to be banned from entering Singapore again.

Mr James Lee, director of Kiat Seng Shipbuilding & Engineering, said: "A strong warning needs to be sent to stop this problem."

When contacted, MOM said it has noted the employers' complaints but added they need to produce strong evidence to back up their claims.

"There should be evidence beyond reasonable doubt that an injured worker had the intention to cheat in his work injury compensation claim before the worker can be prosecuted," said an MOM spokesman.

The ministry had previously punished foreign workers for such an offence. Just earlier this month, a Bangladeshi was jailed for six weeks for making up an accident and working illegally.

Ms Debbie Fordyce, a volunteer at migrants' organisation Transient Workers Count Too, who has helped injured workers, said the staff of law firms help runaway workers rent bedspaces in Little India shophouses and workers earn a commission when they refer injured counterparts to law firms. She says more must be done to educate injured workers to go to MOM instead of lawyers.

"Doctors should be familiar with the work injury compensation process so they can educate workers. Fliers with information on help channels should also be placed in hospitals and clinics," said Ms Fordyce.

* Workers find illegal jobs through informal network
Hundreds of foreign workers, many who were injured, take on such jobs
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 25 Nov 2013

AT 8PM, Bangladeshi worker Kazal receives a text message on his mobile phone: meet at 9am the next day at a Jurong West coffee shop. He knows the sender. But the assignment, as always, is a mystery.

On arrival, the brief is delivered: He has to paint an HDB flat and will be paid $60. Payment is to be made at the end of the day, in cash, of course.

Kazal, who declined to give his full name, is one of hundreds of moonlighting foreign workers who source for illegal jobs here through an informal network.

Most of them are injured as a result of their legal work. They ran away from their official employers because they were not paid and are afraid they may be sent home.

Their work permits are cancelled but they have been issued special passes, which allow them to stay in Singapore legally as they wait for compensation. They are not allowed to work when holding special passes but many ignore the law.

The illegal stints, which can be from a day to a few months, are recommended by other foreign workers who act as middlemen for employers.

This clandestine job market is lucrative: bosses pay workers up to $80 a day. The men take home about $60, with $20 going to the middlemen as commission. In contrast, the men earn $30 a day working for their legal employers.

Workers interviewed on the condition of anonymity said they do a diverse range of jobs and have managed to go unnoticed as the tasks are largely innocuous.

They clean HDB estates, work in wet markets, help karung guni (rag and bone) men, wash cars, move furniture, paint homes, assemble goods in factories, do electrical wiring and general maintenance work in offices.

Desperate to get hired, the men, who usually stay in shophouses in Little India, take on jobs without haggling for more pay.

Kazal, 22, who has been moonlighting for eight months, said: "I try to ask for more money, boss say 'You go. I find other men'."

The booming sector is encouraging more workers to run away, owners of more than 30 firms in the marine and construction sectors told The Straits Times last month.

Those who hire them illegally are usually small cleaning and construction firms. Bosses who hire workers illegally can offer higher salaries as they do not need to pay foreign worker levies to the Government or buy insurance.

Bengali newspaper Banglar Kantha editor A.K.M. Mohsin said many foreign workers run away and moonlight to escape abusive bosses, but added that they are also drawn by the attractive salaries for illegal work. "They can earn more than $1,000 a month, far more than with their legal employer," he said.

However, workers said that while their daily wages from illegal work are higher, overall takings are low because work is irregular.

They also live in fear of being caught. Iqbal, 22, who has been moonlighting for more than a year, said he has a script if he is rounded up by the police. "If police come, I say I am here to see, see. Look for my friends."

They can be fined up to $20,000 and/or jailed for up to two years for working while holding a Special Pass. Last month, a Bangladeshi was jailed for six weeks for making up an accident and working illegally.

Such jobs are inherently dangerous too. The men risk more injuries as they often are not provided with safety equipment such as harnesses and hard hats.

Those who take on jobs for higher pay - such as selling contraband cigarettes, codeine cough syrup and illegal sex drugs - also face harsher penalties if caught by the police.

Workers said they hope the authorities will allow them to be transferred to other employers so they can work legally. Said Kazal: "Every day I'm scared. I want one boss. I get pay every month, don't need to worry."



FOREIGN workers who take on illegal jobs can be fined up to $20,000 and/or jailed for up to two years for working while holding a Special Pass.


ANYONE who is convicted of hiring a foreigner without a valid work pass can be punished with a fine of at least $5,000 and up to $30,000 and/or jailed for up to 12 months.

The punishment is heavier for subsequent convictions.

Tackling the problem of runaway workers
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 6 Dec 2013

BOSSES have been crying foul in recent months over the long medical leave given to their foreign workers for cuts and fractures. Bosses blame workers for exaggerating their injuries and doctors for being too liberal with sick leave.

To make things worse, many of these injured workers run away from company-provided accommodation while on medical leave. They find cheap lodgings and hire themselves out to other employers, mostly small construction and cleaning firms.

Their work permits are cancelled but they have been issued special passes, which allow them to stay in Singapore legally as they wait for compensation for their injuries. They are not allowed to work when holding special passes, but many ignore the law. So employers are also pointing fingers at the Government for not doing enough to clamp down on such moonlighting.

Workers, on the other hand, insist they are genuinely injured. They run away because they fear that their bosses will refuse to pay them when they are injured. Worse, they fear being sent back, with no pay or compensation, to their home countries.

Under Singapore rules, the boss of a foreign worker who is injured may find light duties for him. But if there are no light duties available, the law allows bosses to stop paying their workers. Workers, migrant workers' groups and even doctors say that many employers take this option. This has led to injured foreign workers running away - not to rest, but to offer their services to other employers and get paid.

Clearly, something is amiss.

Worst of all, employers say more foreign workers who become injured are running away to moonlight. I interviewed about 30 bosses in the construction and marine sectors in October for a series of articles on this issue. All were facing a spike in the number of runaway injured foreign workers. Each firm used to have one or two workers who ran away after an injury a year. This year, the number has grown to about six a year.

The bosses say that word of mouth has spread and more workers are being influenced to run away from their workplace dormitories to take up other jobs. They also claim that staff of law firms promise these workers big amounts of work injury compensation.

What can be done about this problem?

While many employers I spoke to appeared helpless, there are in fact some simple steps they can take to nip the problem in the bud.

They can assign staff members to accompany workers to medical appointments to make sure the workers give accurate information about the nature of their jobs to doctors.

The problem is that many construction, marine and cleaning firms are small outfits and do not have the manpower for such tasks. As a result, doctors accept the patients' version of events and sign off on weeks of sick leave.

Hand surgeon Andrew Yam, who has treated injured foreign workers for over a decade, explains that this is one way of ensuring that workers remain paid.

A doctor has the option of recommending light duties for a patient rather than medical leave, while the injury is healing. But many workers say their bosses have no such jobs. So a doctor may feel that writing down "light duties" is tantamount to condemning the foreign worker to weeks or months of unpaid leave.

This problem can be tackled by mandating that employers have to continue paying foreign workers, even when they are sick and put on "light duties". The onus should be on employers to find suitable light duties for injured workers.

Current regulations may have been designed to protect companies from incurring excessively high costs in taking care of their foreign workers. But the rules end up hurting not only foreign workers, but employers too.

They lose their workers. With curbs on foreign workers tightening, employers need to rethink the way they treat their foreign Work Permit holders.

They need to work harder to find suitable work for those injured. The problem surely is not a dearth of work. After all, other bosses can find work for those who are slightly injured, and pay them too. So why not their own employers?

Finally, more can be done to help foreign workers themselves get a fuller picture of the job market in Singapore so that they see running away is not profitable.

Employers now want to hire experienced and higher-skilled foreign workers after being pushed by the Government to do so. When workers run away to do ad hoc labour, they make themselves less marketable since they stop learning and training.

However, convincing foreign workers to stay on with employers to gain experience requires a change in their mindsets towards work here. Many now take a short-term view: Earn as much as possible quickly to pay off high recruitment fees. That is also why many are drawn to moonlighting which offers high pay.

Bosses offering illegal jobs can afford to pay more as they do not pay levies to the Government or buy insurance for the workers.

To change mindsets, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) can plan an outreach programme for foreign workers. Advertisements on the perils of running away and moonlighting can be carried in publications in the workers' native languages such as the Bengali newspaper Banglar Kantha, which has a circulation of about 6,000.

Better still, the MOM and employers can buy these publications and place them in dormitories. Many workers say they would like to read these magazines and newspapers but cannot afford them.

Migrant workers' groups say the MOM must punish employers who threaten to repatriate their workers after they become injured by barring them from hiring more foreign workers in the future.

The ministry is piloting a Temporary Job Scheme to find jobs for foreign workers awaiting work injury compensation. The scheme may be able to stave off the desire to moonlight if it is expanded to more workers.

Migrant worker groups suggest that doctors and hospitals spread the word. Pamphlets discouraging workers from moonlighting and telling them to turn to the MOM can be placed in hospitals and clinics.

By working together, employers, the Government, worker groups and doctors can help to make working in Singapore better for migrant workers.

Measures in place to help injured workers

EMPLOYERS are responsible for a worker's upkeep and maintenance during the entire work injury compensation claim process, and these include providing adequate food, ensuring acceptable housing, and paying any medical leave wages and medical bills ("Help workers who recover from injury be self-sufficient" by Ms Lim Wan Keng and "Helpful and sympathetic hospital staff" by Ms Deborah D. Fordyce, both published in Forum Online last Friday; and "Plug gaps in system to reduce illegal work" by Transient Workers Count Too president Russell Heng, last Friday).

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) will take action against employers who fail to fulfil their responsibilities.

To further help injured foreign workers who have recovered and are fit to work, but are no longer employed, the MOM is piloting a Temporary Job Scheme. This allows foreign workers, while awaiting the resolution of their work injury compensation claims, to take up employment on a temporary basis until the conclusion of their cases.

We are reviewing the pilot and welcome input from various parties on how this can, as much as it is realistically possible, help more injured foreign workers secure employment.

Nevertheless, we reiterate that it is illegal for foreigners to work in Singapore without a valid work permit. Unless approval has been obtained from the ministry, workers on Special Passes awaiting the resolution of their work injury compensation claims are not allowed to work.

Doing so would potentially increase the risk to the workers' well-being. It also gives errant employers an unfair advantage by circumventing work pass obligations. The MOM takes a very serious view of workers and employers who break the law.

We are in contact with Ms Fordyce on her complaint about an employer who confiscated a worker's medical documents. We remind employers that they should not withhold medical documents from their workers.

The MOM advises employers and workers to be responsible during the work injury compensation claim process, so that all parties can benefit from a fair and expeditious system.

We urge workers whose employers are not fulfilling their obligations, or who want to sign up for the Temporary Job Scheme, to approach MOM or call us on 6438-5122 for help.

Woon Cheng Peng
Deputy Director, Work Injury Compensation Department

Helpful and sympathetic hospital staff

ON NOV 17, a Bangladeshi worker was taken to the Singapore General Hospital's accident and emergency department for a lacerated tendon in his right hand and saw a hand surgeon on Nov 19.

His company supervisor confiscated the hospital documents, including the medical certificates, discharge summary and the doctor's note indicating that the worker would need two to three months of treatment.

Without these documents, the worker would not be able to lodge an incident report or a work injury compensation claim.

The hospital receptionists and nurses permitted him to see the surgeon on Nov 20 without an appointment to get copies of the documents. They also did not request payment.

I thank the hospital staff for being understanding, sympathetic and helpful.

Deborah D. Fordyce (Ms)
ST Forum, 29 Nov 2013

Help workers who recover from injury be self-sufficient

I FEEL sorry for the foreign workers who are injured and waiting for their compensation ("Workers find illegal jobs through informal network"; Monday). Their work permits are cancelled and they are given special passes that do not allow them to work even if they have recovered.

Many of these workers have taken on big loans in order to come to Singapore to work.

With no income, how can they possibly support themselves, let alone pay off their loans?

These workers have to depend on non-governmental organisations or the public to help them cope with basic needs like food and lodging.

Some resort to illegal work or, if they are really desperate, turn to crime.

I urge the authorities to look into their plight. It should not be difficult to set up a centralised body to register the workers who have recovered from their injuries and are able to work.

Jobs and work passes should be granted to them to allow them to work for another employer while waiting for their compensation. This will not only allow them to become self-sufficient but also help in meeting our labour demands.

Lim Wan Keng (Ms)
ST Forum, 29 Nov 2013

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