SINGAPORE: Members of Parliament (MP) have urged employers of migrant workers who sustain injuries while on the job to promptly pay for their medical treatment, and provide proper food and accommodation during the compensation process.
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) should also notify these workers when employers file an accident report, the MPs said, adding that the ministry should increase outreach efforts to ensure the workers are aware of their rights and changes to the law.
The call came as Parliament on Tuesday (Sep 3) passed the amended Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA), which protects more workers, and allows for faster and simpler work injury claims.
MORE PROTECTION FOR WORKERS
For instance, workers on light duty (LD) due to a work injury, who might be paid significantly less because they cannot work overtime or get certain allowances, will receive equal compensation to those with medical certificates (MC).
Previously, compensation only covered those with MCs.
Employers must also now compensate workers for any shortfall between their average monthly earnings and earned salary for the first 14 days of MC and/or LD, and two-thirds of their average monthly earnings for one year thereafter.
Furthermore, employers will be required to report all instances of work-related MCs and LDs to MOM, preventing errant employers from trying to influence doctors to prescribe fewer MC or LD days.
Previously, there was no requirement to report work-related LD.
Workers will be allowed to switch doctors without employers’ permission on a case-by-case basis, for instance, when there is evidence to show that the doctor’s assessment is biased or inadequate. This will ensure workers get fair and sufficient treatment.
“MOM has received feedback that some errant employers may attempt to influence doctors to give inadequate medical leave or some doctors may be overly conservative and underestimate the percentage of permanent incapacity (PI),” Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad said in his opening speech before the Bill was debated.
FASTER AND SIMPLER CLAIMS
The amendments will also allow PI claims to be settled faster as compensation can be made at the first opportunity six months – called the current incapacity (CI) assessment – from the date of an accident.
MOM said the Work Injury Compensation Medical Board observed that in most cases, the six-month timeframe offers a close approximation to the eventual state of PI.
According to MOM, 80 per cent of permanent injury cases are resolved within six months. The remaining 20 per cent, or 1,300 claims per year, take a longer time.
The change reduces the waiting time for an assessment and allows workers to receive compensation earlier, MOM said, adding that a delayed assessment could increase outlays for employers.
“Nonetheless, doctors will still have the professional discretion to assess for PI at a later date if they believe that the extent of incapacity will change further for more complex injuries,” Mr Zaqy said.
DELAY IN PAYING FOR MEDICAL TREATMENT
But Nominated MP Anthea Ong said some migrant workers who get injured at work experience a delay in getting medical treatment because their employers refuse to pay for it.
She spoke of two migrant workers from Bangladesh and China who suffered injuries in the past five months – one hurting his back after carrying heavy construction material and another rupturing his cornea after getting hit by a large metal hook – but could not get follow-up treatment because their employers did not settle outstanding medical bills.
“In case we think these are just a couple of odd cases recently, it’s far more common than we think because more than a considerable number of migrant workers are affected,” she said.
Labour MP Patrick Tay said there have been reports in which injured workers could not seek medical treatment because employers did not provide them with a Letter of Guarantee (LOG), adding that they then had to go without treatment as they were unable to afford it.
In response, Mr Zaqy said no worker will be deprived of treatment for a work injury regardless of an ability to pay or if an LOG was provided.
“Employers are already required under the WICA to pay for their employees’ medical treatment for any work injuries. This includes for diagnostic work like MRI scans to assess the extent of injury,” he said in his round-up speech after the debate.
“Workers should report to MOM if their employers are not willing to furnish an LOG for work injuries. We will take action against employers who fail to meet their obligation to pay for medical expenses under the Act.
“In addition, the new WICA will allow the ministry to order insurers to pay medical expenses directly to the healthcare institution if necessary," said Mr Zaqy.
Under the new WICA, employers must pay for their workers’ medical expenses up to S$45,000 or one year from accident, whichever comes first.
This amount was raised from S$36,000 and is part of a review once every four years to keep pace with wage growth and healthcare costs.
Labour MP Zainal Sapari pointed out that there are good reasons to suspect that some employers or insurers might deliberately drag cases to put themselves in a better bargaining position.
“They are aware the migrant worker will run into hardship and put the employers or insurers at an advantage to negotiate a lower quantum which the worker has little choice but to accept,” he said, noting that the CI assessment at six months will help overcome this.
“This (S$45,000 maximum) entitlement is independent of the medical assessment of either PI or CI,” said Mr Zaqy. “The introduction of CI assessment therefore allows foreign workers to recuperate and be with their loved ones earlier in their home countries.”
FOOD AND ACCOMMODATION DURING COMPENSATION PROCESS
Another issue facing injured migrant workers is the issue of food and accommodation during the compensation process.
Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng said non-governmental organisations have shared “horror stories” of migrant workers being housed in “appalling conditions” or travelling long distances to their work sites to get food when they should be resting.
“Employers are currently required to provide adequate food and acceptable housing for migrant workers during the entire work injury compensation process,” he added. “However, it is not clear what adequate food and acceptable housing means.”
Mr Zaqy reminded employers that they are still responsible for looking after their workers while they are in Singapore even after their work permits have been cancelled.
“They have to provide acceptable housing and adequate food - for example, three meals a day - for workers whose work injury claims are still pending,” he said.
Mr Zaqy noted that before Aug 1, MOM had permitted workers who do not want to stay at employer-provided accommodation to stay elsewhere.
“However, this has caused other problems, such as no control over the housing conditions where the workers stayed,” he added.
“From Aug 1, we have established higher standards for injured workers’ housing. Employers have to continue housing the workers at their dorms or pay for housing and upkeep in other MOM-approved dorms.”
NOTIFYING WORKERS OF ACCIDENT REPORTS
When it comes to incident reporting, Ms Ong and Mr Ng said it is unclear how workers will be notified once employers file an accident report.
While letters addressed to migrant workers are usually sent to the office address of their employer, Ms Ong noted that there have been cases where the employer had failed to pass the letters on. Mr Ng also asked if these workers could receive accident reports through existing mobile applications.
Mr Zaqy clarified that once an employer submits an accident report, the employee will receive a letter informing them that an accident report has been made, their rights and the steps they need to take to receive compensation.
“The ministry or insurer will verify important information such as injury sites and salary information with them, and conduct fact-finding if there are any disputes,” he said, highlighting that workers who do not receive such a letter within three weeks can approach MOM for assistance.
“Claimants or anyone assisting them can obtain information about the claims status through our website or text messages. For the latter, they come in four languages and claimants can subscribe to our text messaging service to receive notifications when the claims status changes.”
When it comes to migrant workers, Mr Zaqy said MOM will explore how to provide other forms of notifications.
“The content of accident reports will not affect employees’ amount of compensation under the WICA, so workers would not need their actual reports,” he added.
Mr Zaqy said that MOM will also be able to address under-reporting of work injuries by referencing third-party data, which will be possible under the new WICA.
Under the amendments, insurers will be required to share work policy and claims information with MOM by Sep 1, 2020. MOM will in turn share this data with other insurers so they can price premiums more accurately. This practice is well-established in the motor insurance industry.
“With greater information transparency, employers with good safety records would be able to enjoy lower premiums, while those with poor safety records would face significantly higher premiums,” MOM said in a statement on Tuesday.
“This will provide a stronger commercial incentive for employers to prevent their employees from getting injured in the first place.”
Finally, Workers’ Party MP Pritam Singh said the amendments represent a “good opportunity” to review how WICA is communicated to employers and workers, citing reports that have shown how migrant workers are “ill-informed” about choosing between a WICA claim or common remedy, and the legal costs involved.
“The reality is that workers need enough information to assess how best to pursue their injury claims, as not all are highly-educated and informed or know of their rights and responsibilities,” he added.
Mr Zaqy agreed that it is important for workers to understand what counts as a work injury, noting that over the years, MOM has expanded its outreach to educate employees, such as through the foreign workers’ Settling-in Programme.
“Mr Tay has also shared the assistance and support that unions and the Migrant Workers’ Centre can provide to those with work injury compensation claims,” he said. “For employers, MOM has and will conduct briefings to clarify any doubts.”