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And that’s where we are at this moment. The In-Principle Approval for a Work permit (“IPA” — explained in footnote) has travelled a long way, beginning life as a simple document that merely informed prospective migrant workers that a legitimate Work Permit awaited them in Singapore, together with basic details about salary.
Almost immediately, employers found ways to circumvent the intent, while workers began to refer to it as a basis for salary claims when they were unpaid or under-paid.
The Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM’s) confused and flaccid responses through the years made things worse. Its own by-law (Section 6A) was largely treated as a dead letter.
The advent of the Employment Claims Tribunal meant a more faithful regard to evidentiary and procedural standards. The High Court ruling in Liu Huaixi v Haniffa Pte Ltd established the IPA as the reference document for salaries.
MOM made a number of changes in 2018 to cope with these new demands, most of them badly executed at first. We believe that MP Louis Ng’s parliamentary questions and TWC2’s email questions put to MOM (many of which don’t get much of a reply) played a big role in nudging MOM to rethink its stances and doing better in its execution.
Whilst this series of articles is about the evolution of the IPA, a subsidiary thread through them all is the operating culture at the ministry. By giving readers specific examples of how the ministry acted in response to situations, readers can get a sense of what goes on behind the scenes.
Two new areas are coming over the horizon as likely problems:
As mentioned almost at the beginning of this series of articles, a worker arriving in Singapore needs to show immigration his IPA. However, we are increasingly encountering “transfer workers” in TWC2’s work. These are workers who didn’t go home between jobs but moved from one job in Singapore directly to another. In a sense, it’s a good problem to have because it means that TWC2’s years-long advocacy for better retention of workers within the country is showing results. By retaining skills and experience, even if workers lose one job and have to move on to another, Singapore benefits from better productivity and a foreign workforce that is more adapted to Singapore society. TWC2 has noticed for example that workers who have been here for five or six years understand English better than new arrivals.
However, by definition, transfer workers don’t have to pass through immigration again. And this may explain why some transfer workers have told TWC2 that they never received their copy of the IPA. We wonder if their employers reckoned that they could get away with never handing them their IPAs. What hidden time-bombs are written into these workers’ IPA regarding salary terms, such that the employer would want to hide the IPAs from them?
How common is this problem? What exactly is the process of obtaining a new Work Permit for a transfer job? TWC2 is embarking on a study to better understand the process and identify the weaknesses in it.
Work Permits are of one- or two-years’ duration. On renewal, employees get a notification from MOM that their renewed Work Permits are arriving soon. We’ve noticed that the notification provides insufficient information about the salary. Look at the example at right: it only shows the “salary”. Not only is it unclear whether that is the basic monthly salary or the fixed monthly salary, there are no details about allowances and deductions either.
This wouldn’t be a problem if salary cannot be changed at all; in that case, the IPA terms would continue to apply. But in many cases, workers do get salary increases after completing a year of work.
What is the system for employers to inform MOM of salary increases? At the same time, does the system allow employers to reduce salary? What about adjustments to allowances and deductions? What are the processes for making sure that at the renewal stage, workers are not victims of salary reduction without their knowledge?
In this area too, TWC2 is embarking on a study to better understand the issues.
 The IPA process is almost entirely online. When an employer wishes to employ a foreign worker, he or his licensed employment agent logs into MOM’s system to make an application for a work permit for this worker. A host of details, including salary details, has to be provided.
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, so that he has it in hand when arriving at Changi airport. He needs to show it to immigration.
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