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Meeting the Tans

a year ago / ntuc / worklifesg

How one family's life suddenly took a turn for the worse.

I won't say that my life is bad but I have my fair share of complaints. Lately, it's mostly about the haze, slow internet speed and when I don't get my food cravings satisfied.

Few weeks back, I made a visit to a family that would end up putting things in perspective.

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Along with a union leader and an Industrial Relations Officer (IRO) from NTUC, I visited Mrs Tan at her place in Tampines.

Unfortunately, she wasn't able to notice my presence as she was bedridden and her brain 80% damaged. She could blink but that's about it. Her meals are fed daily via a drip.

Her husband, Mr Tan, explained that she wasn't always like that. Two years ago when she was 42 years old and a cashier at NTUC FairPrice, she came home one evening and took a shower like always and went to bed. He's not sure what happened that night, but the next morning, he found her in this condition and doctors told him that her brain had been damaged by 80% that night. The medical condition is supposedly inter-cranial hemorrhage.

The story doesn't end here.

Mr Tan's father, whom he also has to care for, is also disabled due to lung disease, kidney failure and diabetes.

His mother suffers from dementia.

His younger son, aged 12, has learning disability and attends a special school.

Mr Yeo Soon Hock, the Branch Secretary for FairPrice Branch Committee, recalled the first time they had visited Mrs Tan when the incident happened two years ago, ‘When we went to see the family, it was a really pitiful sight. The mother had to be fed by the maid. Their younger son also had to be restrained to the chair so he would not slide off it. As for Mrs Tan, she couldn’t even recognize me. I called her, but although her eyes were open, she did not register my presence.’

An electrician, Mr Tan doesn't earn much. He clocks a 6-day work week to earn $1850 a month. Of which he has to support his dependents’ living expenses and medical bills as well as the two domestic helpers he has to engage to care for his parents, wife and child. When Mrs Tan was still healthy and working, they had one domestic help to care for Mr Tan's elderly parents and younger son as they need constant care. Now with Mrs Tan bed-bound, Mr Tan has to hire an extra pair of hands so that the two domestic help could help keep an eye on everyone. It’s a huge relief to Mr Tan that the government has waived all the levies.

They live simply - bare furnishing, no air-conditioning and I couldn't help but notice that their television wasn't working either.

From my 2-hour long interaction with him, Mr Tan comes across as a stoic person who keeps his difficulties to himself.

I wish I could tell you that there's a happy ending to this story, that Mrs Tan had miraculously awoken. Unfortunately that's not the case..

Though things are a little better.

Because Mrs Tan's a union member with the Food, Drinks & Allied Workers Union (FDAWU), she was better protected and help was rendered when the union knew what happened.

I learned about the 6 - 6 - 6 scheme that is in most Collective Agreements of most NTUC-affiliated unions in Singapore. This covers union workers where in the event that a worker unfortunately comes down with prolonged illnesses,

  • For the first 6 months, he/ she still gets paid full salary.
  • For the next 6 months, he/ she will get half salary.
  • And for the next 6 months, the company will still hold the job position for he/ she to return to work should conditions improve.

In Mrs Tan's case however, as hers is more critical seeing that she was in a coma, the union negotiated with her employer on hers and her family’s behalf to ‘buy out’ the 6-6-6 clause. So FairPrice ended up paying her the total sum due to her under the scheme (and a little more) without waiting out the 18 months.

Mrs Tan also received a small payout from NTUC Gift Insurance (group insurance that is automatically included with union membership) for total & permanent disability. The benefits increase when you stay with the union for 10 years or more. (For Mrs Tan, she has been a cashier with FairPrice since she was 17 years old.)

Additionally, they also waived her union membership fees for 3 years, so that the family can continue to enjoy benefits such as U-Stretch vouchers, U Care Back to School vouchers, and others. Union leader from FDAWU, Mr Yeo also went above and beyond to help Mr Tan apply for legal aid, link him up with the Residents’ Committee (RC) so he can receive ComCare assistance as well as the SLF hardship grant.

Mr Tan had difficulty claiming his wife’s Dependents’ Protection Scheme (DPS) payout. The insurer required him to present an Order of Court to appoint himself as the legal deputy of her assets. But they found out that Mr Tan would have to incur at least $6,000 in legal fees. The various payouts and grants had rendered his circumstances ineligible for help from the Legal Aid Bureau. So the union stepped in to help him find a lawyer who agreed to offer his expertise on a pro-bono basis.

Not only was Mr Tan very grateful for the union's assistance, I could also see the camaraderie forged between his family, Mr Yeo and Yong Cheng from NTUC's Industrial Relations Office.

For Mr Yeo, like with all union leaders, they do not get paid for their union work. Whatever he does for his workers is above and beyond his day job as a Senior Manager for Purchasing & Merchandising at NTUC FairPrice to help her (and many other union workers in his 25 years of service.)

I left their house that night feeling pretty down (and couldn't help feeling so, so, so, sorry about Mr Tan's plight) but I was also glad that help was rendered by the union to the family in their greatest times of need.

I can’t help thinking about all the times I read how some naysayers lash out at how useless unions in Singapore are. Perhaps unions and union activists in Singapore are busy working the ground to help better workers’ lives, while keyboard warriors are, well, just being keyboard warriors.

Names have been changed to protect identity.

Footnote: A Collective Agreement (CA) is an agreement made between an employer and a trade union of employees on the terms and conditions of employment for the employees. The CA specifies the categories of employees covered, the duration of the agreement and the grievance procedure. The terms typically covered include working hours, rest days; termination of employment; salary and bonuses; annual and sick leave; and medical benefits, etc. The CA is the outcome of negotiation between the parties, and reflects the expectations and concerns of each party.