Friday, December 19, 2014

SINGAPORE:::Unscrupulous lawyers targeting migrant workers, say NGOs

TODAY reports: Migrant worker groups have alleged that the costly services provided by these lawyers are unnecessary and not always in the workers’ best interests.

SINGAPORE: Migrant worker groups here have raised concerns about lawyers who take advantage of ignorant and illiterate workers seeking to claim compensation for workplace injuries, alleging the costly services provided by these lawyers are unnecessary and not always in the workers’ best interests.

But the Law Society has disputed the assertion, saying that the decision whether to make a claim through the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) based on the Work Injury Compensation Act – which can be done without legal representation – or pursue a claim in court “may be one of the hardest decisions an injured worker may ever make in his life”.
“This choice must be a legally informed one, and thus the worker may require the advice of a lawyer,” a Law Society spokesperson said. “It is also fair to say that a foreign worker is likely to be relatively vulnerable – lacking in education and facility in English – and so needs help more than most.”
She explained that a claim made through MOM is based on “no-fault” principles: The employer pays full compensation regardless of whether the worker was at fault. “But the amount received is generally lower than what a court may award if the employer is at fault,” the spokesperson said.
Noting that some insurers or employers may pressurise workers to make claims through the MOM without using lawyers, she added: “If there was negligence and the worker simply accepts the MOM compensation, the worker will have lost out on a substantial amount of compensation.”
Bangladeshi construction worker Sohel Rana told TODAY that when he was injured at his work site earlier this year, the first thing he did was to engage a lawyer, believing that without one he would not be compensated fairly.
Later, he decided to discharge the lawyer’s services after realising that the lawyer was “doing nothing”. “He just filled out forms and asked me to go to MOM (to make the claim),” said Mr Sohel, adding that the lawyer said his fees would be 10 per cent of whatever the compensation amounted to.
Mr Sohel then filed a claim at the MOM with help from a volunteer at Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). The non-governmental organisation said that in the first six months of the year, 939 workers are known to have engaged lawyer services from 21 legal firms to seek compensation claims. Among this group, most of them were making claims through MOM, TWC2 added.
Mr Jolovan Wham of Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) said injured workers may sometimes need a lawyer’s assistance. However, he was concerned about lawyers who take advantage of a worker’s inability to assert their rights.
Common complaints from workers include lawyers who did not follow up on cases and charged high fees, and those who withheld a worker’s compensation when it has been paid. There have also been complaints that workers were not informed of how much they had to pay the lawyer and were faced with a huge bill, he said.
TWC2 executive member Debbie Fordyce said lawyers often send their legal assistants to hospitals, the MOM building or areas where foreign workers congregate such as Little India and Farrer Park to solicit clients. “The lawyers will tell the workers, who are obviously unable to afford the lawyers’ fees, that they will be charged a percentage of the compensation amount,” she said.
Both HOME and TWC2 said they have raised their concerns to the Law Society. However, the society insisted it had not received any complaints by NGOs. In fact, its spokesperson pointed out that both the Legal Profession Act and the Legal Profession (Professional Conduct) Rules currently prohibit contingency fees – or payments for legal services contingent upon there being some recovery or award in the cases. “It is currently impermissible for a lawyer’s remuneration to be based on an amount proportionate to the sum recoverable by the client,” she added.
She also noted that the Law Society has worked with HOME and the Migrant Workers’ Centre to set up legal clinics providing free legal advice to needy migrant workers. “If the NGOs have concerns, they are free to raise these concerns with the Society or to make a complaint so that the investigation process can begin,” the spokesperson said. “The Society does not want blanket allegations to be made... when there is an established statutory mode of complaint, which has not been used.”


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