The impact of workplace accidents: Victims struggle with debt, changed lives

Rachel Phua

SINGAPORE (CNA) – Life changed for Ahmed Sumon on January 20 last year. He had been dismantling a structure at a construction site in Tampines when he was suddenly pinned to the ground with a metal bar on his back.

He was unconscious as he was moved out of the worksite. His company sent him to a clinic at first, where he was prescribed painkillers, he said.

But after a few days, the pain was still unbearable. He got himself admitted to hospital, where an MRI scan showed he had fractured his spine. The 30-year-old was unable to work for the rest of his time in Singapore. He returned to Bangladesh in February this year.

Sumon is one of the 13,779 people who were injured on the job last year, according to the Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) 2019 report.

Last year’s rate of injuries was at a five-year high, with an injury – fatal and non-fatal – rate of 396 per 100,000 workers. The construction and manufacturing industries were its top two contributors.

Ahmed Sumon (C) – pictured here at HealthServe’s Little India office – was unable to continue working as a construction worker after his back was injured in an accident in January 2019. PHOTOS: CNA
The suspension trauma simulator, which allows workers to feel what it is like to fall with a harness strapped on
Sumon chose to start a duck rearing business with whatever compensation money he had as job prospects are low in his village and ducks cost less than other poultry
Some of the ducks Sumon bought to start his duck farm

“This is a cause for concern as every worker deserves to work in a safe and protected environment, and every worker should have the right to return home safely,” said Assistant Secretary-General at the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) Melvin Yong – a sentiment shared by construction and manufacturing industry firms and observers. And though 2019’s workplace death rate was at its lowest since 2004, the trend seems to have reversed in the first few months of this year.

Last month, Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad revealed that more people had lost their lives through workplace accidents so far this year compared with the same period in 2019, despite the ongoing “circuit breaker” meaning that most workplaces are closed. There were 14 fatalities recorded from January 1 to April 17 this year compared to nine within that period in 2019.

Zaqy called it a “worrying trend” that reinforced the need for employers and workers to press on with efforts to improve workplace safety and health.

Injured workers could experience a loss of future earnings, Yong said, as well as having to bear additional costs of treatment and rehabilitation beyond what their workplace injury compensation can cover. Among foreign workers, there is also the issue of debt.

Before coming to Singapore, most of these job seekers pay a recruitment fee to brokers in their home countries. While authorities in Singapore place strict controls over how much local employment agencies can charge the worker, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has said that it has no jurisdiction over the fees charged by agencies in the sending countries.

Becoming incapacitated causes “immense distress and anxiety” among workers who feel helpless about no longer being able to earn money for their families back home, said Desiree Leong, a case worker at Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME).

In addition, there are worries over how they are going to repay outstanding recruitment fee debts, and injuries that might worsen if their employers delay treatment, Leong said. Most of the workers that the non-profit sees – usually just under 150 cases a year – sustain back injuries, while others have lost fingers or their limbs crushed.

Overseas job brokers usually collect a few thousand Singapore dollars from each worker, said HealthServe case worker Yvonne Loo, although she has met some who were charged a fee as high as SGD10,000.

In Singapore, there are nearly a million work permit holders, as of December 2019’s official figures. Aside from the quarter of a million foreign domestic workers, the rest are typically foreigners working low-wage jobs in construction, manufacturing and shipyards.

They earn about SGD600 to SGD700 each month, said Loo, with about 20 per cent of that amount going to pay for lodging and food.

By working overtime, Sumon earned a bit more – SGD1,200 a month, most of it remitted home to his wife, his unemployed father and a mom paralysed by stroke.

But having being in and out of Singapore four times since 2012, Sumon said that he had racked up a debt of SGD20,000 in total owed to various employment agencies in Bangladesh, which he coughed up through loans from banks and friends, and by selling his father’s farmland and cows.

He has managed to settle the debt, half of which came from his SGD16,000 work injury compensation. Left with SGD6,000, he used SGD5,000 to start a duck farm business – job prospects in his village are low, especially during this COVID-19 situation, he pointed out – and the rest to look after his family of five.

Workplace injuries bear heavy costs not just on a worker’s life, but on a company’s bottomline too, construction and manufacturing industry players noted.

The more the number of injured workers, the higher the costs as companies accrue stop-work orders and medical expenses, said Dr Goh Yang Miang, a former chairman of The Institution of Engineers, Singapore’s health and safety engineering technical committee.

Employers also have to bear the costs of training new workers who replace the injured party, increased insurance premiums after every injury, productivity downtime with each injury and legal fees should the worker decide to take legal action in lieu of file for workplace injury compensation, said Yong.