Hundreds of thousands of foreign workers stuffed into office drawers

Posted by on June 13, 2017 in Articles, Stories

By Katia Barthélémy

Heading to one of the restaurants in Little India where TWC2 offers free meals to injured and salary-unpaid migrant workers, I am wondering about the kind of life story I will come across tonight. As a fairly new volunteer with TWC2, my limited experience makes me think everything is about physical injuries.

But my encounter with Kar Kukan Chandra, a 31-year-old shipyard worker from Bangladesh and a father of young children, opens my eyes to another crucial issue faced by a majority of migrant workers in Singapore: denial of legal identity by their employers while staying here.

Have you ever imagined what it means not be able to deploy a document that legally shows “you are YOU”? 

Let’s have a look at Kar Kukan’s case. In theory, all foreigners working in Singapore should be able to show, on demand by any authorised official, the following documents:

  1. Passport
  2. Work Permit

Before he is issued a work permit, he would first have been issued an In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit (“IPA”), which is also an important document since it contains details of the terms and conditions of the job offered to him.

What Kukan relates, however, shows a systematic pattern of illegal retention of these key documents.

Passport

When entering the country, Kar Kukan had his passport in his pocket, that much would be obvious. It shows his photo and his name, and only belongs to him. It also clearly proves “he is Kar Kukan Chandra”.

The welcome pick-up he receives at his arrival in Changi airport includes a first violation: Kar Kukan is made to turn in his passport to the company representative.

Consequence: The moment after having entered the country legally, Kar Kukan is thrown into a situation in which he cannot leave by himself anymore, nor does he have any means to prove identity without the cooperation of the employer.

The Passports Act makes it an offence for anyone to hold and control a passport that does not belong to him. Section 47(5) of this legislation says:

47(5)  If —
(a) a person has or retains possession or control in Singapore of a foreign travel document; and
(b) the person knows that the foreign travel document was not issued to him,

the person shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $10,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years or to both.

Section 50 makes it equally an offence if this was committed by a company. Both the body corporate as well as the officer responsible will be guilty.

IPA letter and work permit 

Go back a bit in time. While still in his home country, after securing a job in Singapore, but before arriving here, Kar Kukan received an IPA letter. To his name. This letter serves two important purposes.

  1. It makes it possible for his entry visa to be converted to a Work Permit (within 30 days of arrival);
  2. It contains details of the terms and conditions of employment, including his basic salary, allowances, authorised deductions, etc.

It is therefore a crucial document too. But what Kar Kukan tells me is troubling. After being issued his Work Permit at the Ministry of Manpower a short while after arriving here, he is taken to the office of his employer. Both his freshly-minted Work Permit and IPA letter are taken away from him.

Consequence: He has no more documents that would prove his legal identity. This is a violation under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act. Subsidiary legislation made under this law contains this clause:

The employer shall not retain possession of the foreign employee’s original work permit and visit pass and shall allow the foreign employee to retain possession of the foreign employee’s work permit and visit pass.

— the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations 2012, Fourth Schedule, Part III, section 7.

Section 22 of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act prescribes “a fine not exceeding $10,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to both” for a first-time violation of the above condition.

But why this situation?

If one asks “why does an employer take a worker’s documents away?”, the simple answer is that it maximises the power and control he has over his employee. The worker is completely at the employer’s mercy.

Employers for example can cancel a work permit whenever they want – without having to give a reason. That is even more quickly done and less troublesome when one does not need to ask the worker to turn in his documents first, don’t you think so?

When asked how he feels when he sees a patrol approaching for a identity check on Sundays for example, Kar Kukan interestingly states “not scared” – as he is able to show… his “safety course certificate”. This is a piece of plastic, the size of a credit card, that says something to the effect that he has attended and completed a work safety course. It is frankly of no legal value when it comes to identity since it is not issued by any governmental agency. But surprisingly, based on what workers tell me, this kind of documentation seems acceptable to the authorities.

Talking to a couple of other workers that evening, I quickly understand that the majority of them are not in possession of their passports. It feels scary and unreal that Singaporean employers have hundreds of thousands of passports in their drawers — legal lives they “possess” and can decide upon as they wish.

On the Work Permit side, the situation looks similar: the majority of the migrant workers who come to TWC2 are not in possession of their original Work Permits. Some may have photocopies of no legal value.

Heading home, struggling to process all that I have heard, a thought came to me:  though health and education are usually considered the two major essentials for improving underprivileged lives, being denied the proof of one’s own legal existence annihilates access to all other rights – as any action can be declared “illegal” when you have no means to proof legally you are “you”. Your existence is effectively erased.

How is it that, despite being clear violations of the law, no action is taken? In fact, from what I hear, the authorities largely accept the situation. Is this a reflection of this country’s attitude to foreign workers? That it is OK to “erase” their autonomy and put their lives under the control of others?

In July 2017, MOM took issue with this statement in the above article:

“After being issued his Work Permit at the Ministry of Manpower a short while after arriving here, he is taken to the office of his employer. Both his freshly minted Work Permit and IPA letter are taken away from him.”

MOM wrote to say:

During our inspection on the company, we found that the workers from the company held on to their own Work Permit cards.

TWC2 responds:

Kukan Chandra was interviewed on 20 June 2016; the above article was published one year later. Another worker from the same company came to TWC2 in February 2017, and he too confirmed that during employment his Work Permit had been kept by the company. It’s not clear when MOM did its check — the company had plenty of time to change its policies, especially when we publicised its failings through this story — but we are glad that an improvement has since been made. The next time another worker from the same company shows up at TWC2, we will ask again in order to have greater confidence that company practice has indeed changed.

TWC2 is an organization that is dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers when they are in difficulty. We are motivated by a sense of fairness and humanity, though our caseload often exceeds our
means.

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