By intern Ada Cheong

The past few weeks have frustrated me in my search for an elusive piece of paper in Singapore. Nobody seems to have a physical copy of it. And much like a mythical creature, it evades photography. Does it even exist? If seeing is believing, I must admit: I have not seen it with my own eyes.

The piece of paper I am looking for is the notice of Work Permit renewal. Addressed to workers themselves, it is sent by the Ministry of Manpower when employers apply to renew a worker’s Work Permit, often at the end of two years. Upon receiving this piece of paper, the administrative protocol is equivalent to that of getting a new Work Permit. While new Work Permits are applied for with an In-Principle Approval letter (IPA), renewals only require the renewal notice.

Yet, most workers are able to produce copies of their IPA, but not their Work Permit renewal.

Some men, such as Rana Md Melon, said they have never seen such a renewal notice before. Others, like Mia Md Alamin, allege that their bosses never gave them a copy to keep. This is despite the notices being addressed to the workers, with their names on it, rather than their bosses. They are often shown the document and required to sign the paperwork while they are at a job site, and the papers are soon whisked away. Understandably, most workers are happy to be offered the opportunity for a Work Permit renewal — even more so if this renewal brings with it promises of a higher salary. It is always a gamble with jobs in Singapore, and stable jobs are their equivalent of striking lottery. As such, retaining photographic evidence of this document seems redundant.

This is a sentiment widely echoed. “Aiya, that paper — rubbish one. Nobody keep, all throw,” Motin, a worker with an injury claim, tells me. This is echoed by Salauddin Md., who has worked in Singapore since I was a toddler. A man with greying hair, Salauddin was employed by his first company for 15 years. Each Work Permit only covered the duration of a single year, meaning that his Work Permit was renewed virtually every year. Did he keep copies of these renewal notices? Predictably, not.

I found such a blasé attitude towards the renewal notice puzzling. After all, these workers are sometimes known for their conscientious (if haphazard) collection of paperwork, normally gathered in plastic folders.

The only copy of the notice stored in TWC2’s database presents one of the three pages expected in the renewal notice.It only has one figure: “salary”. On the other hand, the IPA contains a multitude of information: the basic monthly salary, fixed monthly salary (basic monthly salary + fixed monthly allowances), monthly housing, amenities and services deductions, miscellaneous deductions, as well as fixed monthly allowances.

The reflection of the worker’s salary in a renewal notice is essential, since the documented salary is utilised in official calculations, in the event of salary disputes or Work Injury Compensation claims. In salary claim disputes, the documented amount is often used to calculate the worker’s overtime salary and which factors into the overall amount salary that his employer owes him. It is also the basis of the worker’s salary when he is given a medical leave certificate (MC) in lieu of a work injury. As stated in the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA), workers on MC are supposed to receive their fully salary for the first 14 days of outpatient MC (up to 60 days in the event of hospitalisation), and two-thirds that amount from the 15th (or 61st) day onwards, for up till a year from the injury. These calculations are grounded in the documented salary figure. The renewal notice thus also provides a record of salary changes (normally increases), which are either negotiated by workers, or offered by more reasonable employers.

Nevertheless, a singular figure makes the renewal notice vague and problematic in these calculations. What about rental deductions? What about allowances? These, too, are bound to change in light of Singapore’s notorious inflation. Isn’t the cost of living our national gripe? Rana, for example, informed me of the changes in his rental deductions, as they were calculated in a different manner. These allowances and deductions are important in calculating the salary ultimately due to the worker, as well as the lump sum compensation due to injured workers who suffer permanent incapacity. This compensation is calculated based on the worker’s Average Monthly Earnings (AME): the worker’s earnings over the past 12 months before the accident date, which generally includes overtime pay, but excludes transport allowances and reimbursements.

Details such as allowances and deductions are thus important ones, but do not currently feature in Work Permit renewal notices. Is this elusive document, then, as worthless as workers claim it is?