Three of the eighteen workers interviewed in our straw poll

By Wang Ting

It is a chilly, drizzly evening. A crowd of people, mostly foreign workers from India and Bangladesh, swamp the registration desk of Transient Workers Count Too’s free meal service. There’s a lot of talking, making the place lively.

We are doing a simple survey tonight, to get some idea about  agent fees and when these were paid. Did workers hand money over to their agents before or after being assured of a job?

The key document is called the In-principle Approval for a Work Permit (“IPA”) , issued by the Ministry of Manpower. It signifies that a company has applied for a work permit for the worker and that the ministry has given its approval subject to a medical examination upon arrival in Singapore. How many workers paid money to agents even before getting an IPA is a major concern.

After a brief introduction of our identities as volunteers from TWC2, you could see that the workers felt more relaxed. Before that, they eyed us with a bit of tension, or at least curiosity.

Directed to me by my team leader, a foreign worker comes close so that I can kick start the survey. He speaks in a low pitch, almost submissively, “My name is…”

By the end of the evening’s survey, I was quite astonished that despite the crucial importance of the IPA, nearly half of the eighteen men I interviewed had only minimal knowledge about this document. Eight individuals paid the full amount of the agent fee before receiving an IPA (in other words, before being assured of a job) and three paid partially. Only seven paid the fee after an IPA had been issued.

Din Islam responds to my question “When did you pay the agent fee?” with shrewd intelligence. “I know we have to get the IPA,” he says, “but you need to pay first then you could possibly get the chance to work here. That’s why I paid the agent $2,000 before I get the letter.

“I pay the other $1,500 later when I see the letter.”

His words show the due care he took during this whole process, but they also reveal a degree of helplessness.

Din Islam’s friend Kabir looks somewhat lost when I ask the same question. He doesn’t seem to appreciate the legal significance of an IPA. Din Islam then helps me out, explaining my question to Kabir in their mother tongue. Din Islam explains to me that his friend barely understands English and offers to translate for him in response to the survey. This only shows that the lack of English can lead to misunderstanding and trouble for foreign workers. Documents are not understood and orders from supervisors are not smoothly transmitted to subordinates.

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To the question “To whom did you pay the agent fee?”, thirteen interviewees said their agent was a proper agent, but five indicated that they used irregular contacts such as a previous boss, an acquaintance working in a different firm, a friend, or a supervisor in the same company.

Din Islam describes his agent in Bangladesh as a “very smart” guy who “charged a high price and earns the big money in between.”

Just as he says this, a “friend” of his comes over with a brand new laptop in his hands. Din Islam laughs out loud: “You see, my friend is getting rich working here, now he can afford a laptop.”

Is he suggesting that the “friend” is also in the “agency” business?

Even though our survey is a small one, we could already find workers who were in a position of weakness vis-à-vis their agents – paying up before they were assured of a job – and several examples of dealing with persons who were not licensed agents at all. It indicates how widespread the problem is.