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By Nicholas Lee, based on interviews in July 2018
Today’s article takes a little step back to explore how variances in culture and social experience affect the way foreign workers understand and handle paper documentation, processes and rules in Singapore.
As locals know all too well, Singapore is famous for its strict adherence to “Black & White”: Regulations, paper qualifications, proper documentation; Our obsession with them is, whether true or not, often associated with high standards, quality and stability that Singaporeans are proud of. Indeed, even our president is not excused from it, her security convoy having received a warning for parking in a non-designated spot (Ng, 2017, see footnote 1).
Strong bureaucracy like this, whilst not unique to Singapore, may be foreign for the Bangladeshi and Indian workers who come to Singapore. Some time back, TWC2 came across a man who had thrown away his In-Principle Approval (IPA) letter (explained in footnote 2), required for registration of a work permit. This presented a unique case. He could not prove he had a job waiting for him; he would not be able to obtain a work permit.
How do they learn the importance of proper documentation and strict adherence to rules? How do they acquire confidence in laws? I speak with four men coming to eat with TWC2’s Cuff Road project — the organisation’s free meals programme.
The experienced one
Sadhin is the first in line. A seasoned worker with around 6-7 years of work experience in Singapore, Sadhin is no stranger to the procedures that keep Singapore in order. Indeed, he is currently awaiting his case to be settled through the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), having gone through the right processes to submit his claim. But did he always know the correct procedures?
I began by asking about the IPA.
“(If) IPA paper thrown, police (will) catch. Singapore law (is) good, strict and clean”, says Sadhin, demonstrating some knowledge of its importance. He emphasises that this has to be taught, otherwise workers do not know.
By ‘police’ he may be referring to the immigration officers at the airport who will want to see a person’s IPA before allowing entry if that person does not look like a genuine tourist.
Hosen is the next. A relatively fresh worker in Singapore, having worked just one year and four months in Singapore, the 24-year-old’s recent stint came to a halt from a fall injury and is in the midst of a claim. He too, learnt about the importance of the paper through his friends back in Bangladesh.
Additionally, he recalls being sternly reminded by immigration staff when he arrived at Changi Airport, who said to him: “No IPA paper, if police checking(sic) no paper (or) no work permit, go back home”.
His halting English has me slightly concerned; would he understand the documents he’s provided throughout the course of his claim process? But Hosen moves off quickly.
The old birds
Up next are Salauddin and Dipu, new registrants to TWC2 but not to Singapore. Their relative fluency in English reflects their long experience working here: over ten years each. Tonight, they have come directly from MOM where they lodged salary claims. They tell me that all the workers in the company have been receiving only “pocket money” of $130 a month, instead of their rightful wages.
(Just to be clear: while they’ve been in Singapore for over ten years each, they’ve been in different jobs. The salary matter stems from their most recent jobs.)
I ask again about the IPA. Salauddin scoured his memory from years back and recall that it was his friends who informed him how important that document was. Dipu nods in agreement.
A fellow volunteer checks their responses by asking the question in a different way. “Do you have your IPA paper with you now?” He reasons that if they were lodging salary claims at MOM that very same day, they should have their IPAs in hand.
Dipu promptly shows us his slightly tattered IPA, whilst Salauddin only has a photo of it. When queried, Dipu explains that the IPA is important if there are any salary disputes; the document will prove what their salaries ought to be.
And that’s where our conversation gets interesting. This has not occurred to Salauddin. The men then carry on a conversation between them in Bengali which yours truly does not understand.
I interrupt to ask how disputes will be resolved in Bangladesh. “In Bangladesh, (if) company no pay can report police, but no much happen,” says Salauddin, indicating the poor prospects of getting any resolution. “If no settle, is okay, still have house, land, friend and family to help. Singapore cannot”.
“Money no have, have land can plant food to grow for makan (eat)”, Dipu chimes in.
In a nutshell, in Bangladesh it is possible to fall back on a simple, perhaps somewhat tough life, devoid of most commercial goods where most people own land and can farm.
Through broken English, they indicate that agreements are based on trust, negotiation and reputation, more than on written documents. Unresolved salary disputes may be brushed aside if not worth the fight, since they have their farmland to fall back on.
Listening in, the senior volunteer offers his take on the issue. “Because recruitment fees are so exorbitant,” he says, “quite often we hear of family land being sold or mortgaged to raise the money needed to pay agents.”
“That rips their traditional safety net. They can no longer afford to take such a relaxed attitude if salaries are not paid in Singapore.”
And yet, employment letters and payslips are secondary in nature to our foreign friends, having come from a society where trust, family and community are relied upon to resolve problems instead of bureaucratic and judicial processes. If they don’t understand the importance of getting and keeping their documents, they may find themselves severely disadvantaged when problems arise.
“So when issues crop up,” adds the senior volunteer, “and yet they can’t produce copies of needed documents to prove their case, we must be careful not to consider them careless or foolish for not having kept their papers.”
“They’re coming from a different society; one where… what’s the use of documents when there’s no functioning justice system that adjudicates on the basis of the written word?”
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