Mr Speaker Sir, the Bill makes several improvements to the existing Act. The Act now covers exposure to chemical or biological agents and improves the insurance protection of the worker. This is commendable. To further safeguard the interests of our workers, I would like to suggest four changes to the Bill.
Let me begin with the proposed amendment of Section 11: removal of court action as a reasonable cause for delay in filing WICA claims. This amendment would effectively prevent injured workers from getting any compensation, if they go to court and lose or withdraw for various circumstances beyond their control. This amendment reverses the decision by the Court of Appeal in the case of Pang Chen Suan Vs Commissioner for Labour. The Court of Appeal made it clear that an injured worker can choose to withdraw his claim under WICA to pursue his claim under common law and still be allowed return to WICA later, if there is no prejudice to the employer and insurer. The worker’s choice to sue under common law is considered reasonable cause to make the WICA claim outside the 1 year period.
The Ministry of Manpower’s consultation paper states that they have, quote, “started to see an increase in WICA claims being re-filed more than 1 year after the accident, with some cases being re-filed even 6 years after the accident”, unquote. In fact, MOM’s intention is to discourage so-called forum shopping. Is this increase in re-filings so large that it overwhelms the WICA’s intention as a cap on liabilities? Why punish all workers just to prevent a small number of forum shoppers abusing the system? Why not preserve the current status quo of allowing MOM discretionary powers to decide the merits of each case? Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. In the interests of our workers, the current form of Section 11 need not be changed.
I will now touch on the proposed amendment of Section 3, which would exclude compensation for injuries sustained in work-related fights. The proposed wording gives exceptions on the exceptions for compensation. This is complicated and puts the onus on employees to prove that they are entitled to compensation. Does this not undermine the intent of WICA to be a no-fault claims? The amendment should really be in line with the other stipulations in Section 3 and be stated as an exception to compensation. it should simply state, quote, “if the employee is shown by the proper authorities to have started the assault or destruction of property that resulted in his/her injury then theemployer would not be liable”, unquote. This shifts the burden of proof from the employee to the proper authorities for exceptions for compensation like the other stipulations in Section 3. This will prevent anyone from making use of the law to deny compensation to all workers involved in a fight.
I would like to add that the fact this amendment has been proposed is very worrying. The amendment suggests that workplace fights are not uncommon occurrences today. Is workplace safety and security no longer a given in Singapore? Are our workers now more vulnerable to work-related fights? We hope that the MOM intends to address this problem beyond capping employer liabilities. I notice that the banners of the WSH Nation campaign are lining our streets. And I observe that thousands of our workers have gone online to create their 3D WSH Citizen (I am citizen No. 3005). Each citizen has an audio that says quote, “I pledge to end all risks at work”, unquote. The risks should also include work-related fights. Excluding compensation for injuries due to fights will only make workers more anxious of this particular risk. It is not an effective deterrent if it is meant to be one. I ask that the MOM take a more positive approach to tackling this problem.
Moving on to the next change, I support the expansion in coverage for occupational diseases that the amendment of Section 4 brings.However, the limitation period for exposure to chemical and biological agents needs to be made equivalent to other occupational diseases. The start of the limitation period should be, quote, “no longer employed in the occupation”, unquote, rather than, quote, “ceases to be exposed”, unquote. The limitation period for exposure to chemical and biological agents should be 3 years, given that some Second Schedule diseases have 3 years limitation periods.
Separately, the MOM is conducting a review on the limitation periods of occupational diseases to better align them with the actual disease development timeframe. What is the progress of the review? This should be a matter of urgency since more workers will be compromised by the current common standard of 1-year limitation period with the delay of the review.
My final point is on the Increase of WICA compensation limit in the Third Schedule. The MOM had agreed to this in the consultation paper. Could the Minister indicate when the new limits will be gazetted and when will they take effect?
In addition, in 2008, the Ministry Of Health has further increased the burden on injured workers when they removed hospital subsidies for industrial accidents. The removal is supposedly in line with the principle that it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure the safety and health of their employees at the work place, yet any WICA compensation limit puts a price cap on this principle and transfers the employer’s responsibility to the workers’ burden instead.
For foreigners on S-Pass and Work Permit, the employer is fully liable for all medical treatment costs, even above the WICA limit. This is not so for injured Singaporean workers. After claiming from WICA, they are still liable for their own medical expenses above the WICA limit. Injured Singaporean workers with medical expenses above the limit have two choices. One, give up the WICA claim and take the risk of suing the employer under common law. Or two, apply through the hospital’s medical social workers for further assistance on a case-by-case basis. Why make this policy that results in Singaporean workers being worse off than foreign workers? With the interests of Singaporeans in mind, I propose the removal of the medical claims cap in Section 5 of the Third Schedule.
Mr Speaker, to re-iterate, I would like to say that the bill adds much needed protection for workers who’ve been exposed to chemical and biological agents. However, it still requires tweaks to further the interests of workers. Thank you.