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This five-part series of articles throws a spotlight on the In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit (“IPA”), a key document in the import of foreign labour into Singapore. Behind the document is a process that, over time, has shown several weaknesses. What began as a document and process to better assure migrant workers that the jobs said to be waiting for them in Singapore were real also became tools of misrepresentation as the weaknesses of the document and process were exploited.
Moreover, the document began to be used for a purpose it was never designed for: resolution of salary disputes. Since this was never its intended purpose, it made a poor fit with the demands put on it.
Parts 1 to 5 of this series will recall some of the problems with the IPA that have surfaced over the years, and the Ministry of Manpower’s (“MOM”) responses (if any) to them. Difficulties have been compounded by MOM’s relative slowness in response – a common feature of huge bureaucratic organisations over-invested in their own legacy processes.
It was in or around 2011 when the Ministry of Manpower (“MOM”) introduced a document called the In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit (“IPA”). It represented an improvement in process for work permit applications by employers.
The IPA process is almost entirely online. When an employer wishes to employ a foreign worker, he or his licensed employment agent can log into MOM’s system to make an application for a work permit for this worker. A host of details has to be provided.
These details include:
If MOM approves the application, the employer or his agent can then print two versions of the IPA in paper form. One version is for the employer and the other is for the employee. The key details including those items listed above are the same, but there are some details that only show up in the employer’s copy, such as the amount in monthly levy, but not in the employee’s copy. And vice versa.
The employer or his licensed agent is supposed to send the employee’s copy to the prospective worker. The intention is obvious, and it is a laudable one: to ensure that the worker knows in advance that a proper work permit is waiting for him, with a brief outline of the salary terms, nature of his job and the name and address of his employer.
MOM also coordinated with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority to require prospective workers arriving in Singapore to present their copy of the IPA in lieu of a tourist visa. Prospective workers would be given a 30-day entry stamp on their passports, plenty of time in which to convert their status to Work Permit holders. The requirement to present the IPA at immigration effectively ensured that the worker received his copy of the IPA before he flew into Singapore.
Thinking ahead, MOM created different language versions of the employee IPA, so that even if the worker cannot read English, he can refer to his native language copy.
Almost immediately, problems surfaced as employers learned to game the system. As soon as TWC2 learned about these problems, we wrote about them on this website. For example, there is a story from May 2013 titled Chinese workers confused what went in or out of their pay. In the story, the IPAs in question were dated February 2012 – barely a year since their introduction.
Our story reported
The men said they were only given their IPA just as they were boarding the aircraft, and even then, just the English version. They didn’t even realise that a Chinese version would have been sent to their employment agent, intended for them. The copy they received being only in English, they didn’t understand what the IPA said.
You can immediately suspect what the back story was. They were given verbal promises about the job that were not reflected in the IPA. Hence the motivation to pass them the IPA as late as possible – in fact, just as they were boarding the flight – and even then only the English version which they could not read.
The advantage to the employer would be this: Should a dispute arise in future, the documented terms on the IPA would likely trump whatever verbal assurances the workers had been given. And if the documented terms were inferior to the verbal promises, then the employees would be at the losing end during adjudication.
With the problem of language, the solution was obvious. The IPA should be bilingual with English and native language sentences next to each other on the same page.
Despite our highlighting, through this article in 2013, how different languages on different pages can be exploited to disadvantage workers, this format continued for years more. It wasn’t until mid-2016 that a bilingual-on-same-page format was introduced. While that (eventually) solved one problem, it did nothing for the other problem – that of not passing a copy to the prospective worker till as late as possible.
However, at least in the Bangladesh context, it was the market that ultimately resolved that second problem, not MOM. After a few years, as awareness of an IPA being an essential document spread, the practice gradually developed wherein prospective workers would not be asked to pay the “agent fee” to the job broker in their town or village until an IPA was available. It would therefore not be in the broker’s interest to withhold the IPA till late.
The IPA began to be used as proof that a real job awaited the man in Singapore. In that sense, the IPA was living up to its promise.
But we can read the “market solution” in a different way too: as irony. This purpose of the IPA – early notification of the terms of employment – is only served if another injustice is extant: that of workers having to pay huge sums of money to job agents. If and when this “agent fee” problem is eliminated, the market pressure to pass an IPA to a worker early also vanishes, and we’ll be back to square one.
A better solution is needed, and TWC2 has proposed one. It is that every prospective worker has to sign and thumbprint a Standard Employment Contract (SEC) wherein detailed terms of employment are clearly stated in both English and his own native language before the employer even initiates the work permit application process. TWC2 recommends that the work permit application should require details that match the details in the SEC and a copy of the signed and thumb-printed SEC should also be attached to the application. In addition, the work permit application should include a certification that a copy of the signed SEC in both English and native language was given to the worker – to stop the common practice of making workers sign documents but not give them a copy of what they had signed. This way, it does not matter if the IPA is handed to the worker minutes prior to embarking on the plane; he would have known the detailed terms of employment well before, at the time of signing the SEC.
In part 2, we will discuss how the IPA began to be used in disputes over salary terms.
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