Geng Jun (right) speaking with TWC2’s General Manager Ethan Guo and intern Chua Shenyi

Geng Jun had spent several days and nights at Changi Airport because he had nowhere to stay. Without money, he had not eaten for some time too. Finally, someone advised him to call TWC2 and he did. Our intern took a taxi to the airport to fetch him, luggage and all.

He had arranged a job to be a noodle-maker — that’s his trade — at a food manufacturing plant. But when he showed up for work, he was asked to work in the bean curd department. He considered that switch unacceptable and left the job after one day. He then contacted the employment agent to demand his money back. But the agent would only give him a little over $300, an amount he considered too little compared to what he had paid.

What had he paid? We need to retrace several earlier steps.

While he was finishing up an earlier job in Singapore, Geng Jun found this new placement. However he went home to China for a short while before taking up the new job. It was during this home leave that the bulk of the payment was made. He sent 16,000 Yuan via Wechat, approximately S$3,100.

When he arrived in Singapore, he had to pay a further S$400 to the driver who picked him up from the airport. In total, he paid about $3,500.

Yet, when we looked at his copy of the In-principle Approval letter from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), the amount stated to have been paid to the employment agent (a licensed agent in Singapore) was only $1,300. Perhaps by pointing this discrepancy to MOM, he might get a better resolution, we advised.

Under Singapore law, if a job is lost within six months, the agent has to return 50% of the fee paid.

The long and short of it was this: Geng Jun told us that he was advised by MOM to first try to reach an amicable settlement with the agent. If MOM were to open an investigation, it would take a long time and he’d have to stay on in Singapore — something that Geng Jun was not keen on anymore. In any case, as we ourselves thought, there was also a Chinese party in the recruitment chain and it’s not clear what amount went to the Singapore employment agent, and what portion to the Chinese party.

Geng Jun got the sense that MOM would not be of much help. Jurisdictional issues again.

Still, we believe that it improved his bargaining position when he could tell the agent that he had reported the matter to MOM. A much better refund offer was made to him — though still not as good as he had hoped — and Geng Jun went home soon after.

Investigations and enforcement are not optional luxuries

Did the Singapore agent take more than $1,300 as declared in the In-principle Approval? We don’t think this was ever clarified through an investigation. If the agent had taken more than what he declared to MOM, it would be a false declaration and a criminal offence.

In TWC2’s view, as soon as there is a reasonably credible allegation that an agent had made a false declaration, an investigation should automatically be opened. It’s in the public interest that facts are established and laws are obeyed. It shouldn’t have been a matter of asking Geng Jun whether he was prepared to stay on for the duration of the investigation. A detailed statement could have been taken from him, evidence collected, and he should be free to go home after that if he so wished.

In our view too, MOM has developed a habit of making investigations entirely discretionary and optional. We’ve seen numerous cases of wrong-doing, e.g. non-payment of salaries, non-reporting of workplace accidents, with no follow-up at the enforcement level. This has made a mockery of employment laws.

What incentive would employment agents have to lie on the declaration? The Employment Agencies Act caps the amount in fees that a licensed agent can charge workers to the equivalent of two months’ basic salary. We would be very naive to think that all agents willingly stay within this limit. There will be a strong temptation to charge more and simply declare the legal maximum to MOM. Especially if MOM acquires a reputation of not investigating, this would be a relatively risk-free way to make extra money. Our officials’ laid-back attitude is very damaging to Singapore.

Jurisdictional boundaries are not carved in stone

Another attitudinal change that is required concerns jurisdictional boundaries. While these are real, they are not insurmountable. A rapidly spreading concept is that of clean supply chains. Global brands are being held to higher standards as to where they source their products or sub-products, and the environmental and human rights violations inherent in them.

Singapore cares about its brand value. We should then begin to apply the concept of clean supply chains too. Our licensed recruitment agencies should be required to ensure that their overseas suppliers adhere to ethical standards; they should exercise due diligence when choosing whom to work with in the labour-source countries.

Immediately, we can glimpse a problem. What ethical standards do we even have? What standards are to be applied? It’s dismaying that Singapore is so far behind that even this very basic issue is not settled.

Fortunately, we do not have to reinvent the wheel. The International Labour Organisation published in May this year (2019) a brochure titled General principles and operational guidelines for fair recruitment and definition of recruitment fees and related costs. It can be downloaded from https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/fair-recruitment/WCMS_536755/lang–en/index.htm

On page 13, item 7 says:

No recruitment fees or related costs should be charged to, or otherwise borne by, workers or jobseekers.

On page 16, this is expanded thus:

Governments should take measures to eliminate the charging of recruitment fees and related costs to workers and jobseekers.

6.1. These measures should aim particularly at preventing fraudulent practices by labour recruiters, abuse of workers, debt bondage and other forms of economic coercion. Governments should also take measures to prevent and/or deter the solicitation and collection of illicit money from workers in exchange for offering them employment contracts.

6.2. Prospective employers, public or private, or their intermediaries, and not the workers, should bear the cost of recruitment. The full extent and nature of costs, for instance costs paid by employers to labour recruiters, should be transparent to those who pay them.

It can hardly get clearer.

We should change our law. It should say that licensed employment agencies shall not levy any charges on the job seeker. And shall ensure that no other party along its supply chain does so either. Should any amount be later found to have been charged, whether by the Singapore-licensed agency or any of its upstream partners, the Singapore agency should be liable for a full refund.