This video is from Straits Times’ CloseUp series, first aired on 26 Febraury 2021.

This groundbreaking video is self-explanatory, but because of the limit on length, there may be some parts where we may be able to fill in a bit more of the background.

How John Peter got his job at Deiva Shanmuga Sri Construction

John Peter Ayyavu has a civil engineering diploma from an Indian college. When the idea of coming to Singapore to work surfaced, the family asked around for contacts. In mid-2019, a friend (in India) introduced the Ayyavu family to the future employer Deiva Shanmuga Sri Construction Pte Ltd, which is essentially owned by a person named Seenivasan Arumugam, of Indian nationality. From public records obtained in June 2020, we could see that Seenivasan owned 200,000 shares out of 205,000.

John Peter told TWC2 that fairly early in their conversations with Seenivasan, a payment of about $7,000 was demanded as the necessary fee for the company to give John Peter a job.

This demand was then split into two parts. The first part was paid by John Peter’s father through a bank cheque dated 15 June 2019 which you can see at 7 minutes 15 seconds into the video. The cheque was made to “pay yourself” (“yourself” being Canara bank) but it was accompanied by instructions to Canara Bank that the ultimate beneficiary should be “Seenivasan A” who had an account with Indian Bank.

In trying to explain this transfer, Seenivasan told the Straits Times (also at 7 minutes 15 seconds) that the senior Ayyavu was repaying a loan. John Peter tells TWC2 that this is untrue. His father had never met Seenivasan and didn’t know him.

The ATM deposit slip

Then John Peter came to Singapore and paid another instalment in cash. He brought the money with him in rupees and had it changed to Singapore dollars at a moneychanger in Little India. After passing the cash to Seenivasan personally on 8 August 2019, John Peter asked for a receipt. Seenivasan might not have been expecting this, and he didn’t seem prepared. Instead, Seenivasan decided to deposit the cash into his DBS Bank account — we’re not clear whether it was the company account or his personal account — handing John Peter the ATM deposit slip to serve as proof that the asked-for sum had been received.

In the video, Seenivasan claimed that what he took from John Peter in Little India was actually his company’s money (7 minutes 22 seconds). This is hardly credible. Why would John Peter be holding and returning company money when, as at that date, John Peter had not even started work at the company? John didn’t start work until November 2019, a delay that was unrelated to the issue at hand — something to do with difficulty in getting approval for his work pass.

Hossain brought his evidence with him

When Hossain (name changed) first came to TWC2, we noticed something unusual about him and his story. It wasn’t just about him having been made to pay $3,500 to a man called Joy who was also the company’s safety supervisor. Hossain had already compiled a dossier of evidence.

He came armed with ten video and audio recordings on his phone, for he had spent the past few months secretly recording conversations with his fellow workers asking them how much each had to pay Joy for his job. Every colleague that he spoke with said he had to pay something, though the amounts varied.

Hossain’s own payment of $3,500 was about average. He even had a recording of himself speaking with Joy (at 4 minutes, 01 seconds) which, in Hossain’s view, was corroborative of his claim.

He impressed us by being unusually pro-active and well-organised.

Invisible investigation

Well before Straits Times even came to TWC2 with the idea of a video, Hossain and John Peter had each mentioned the matter to their respective case officers at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Both came away with the disappointing impression that their case officers were not particularly interested in pursuing the matter. The case officers might not even have recorded these conversations in their files so we won’t be surprised if MOM later says the two guys did not raise the issues with them.

After the Straits Times began work on this video (November 2020), they naturally approached MOM for comment. We understand from the Straits Times that MOM’s initial response to them was that investigations had been completed, though there was no information about the outcome. Neither Hossain nor John Peter had heard from MOM about progress, which only served to reinforce their initial impression that MOM was not interested in the issue.

We heard nothing more over the next few weeks. Then in the week leading up to Christmas, both men were summoned to MOM again and were each interrogated for 3 – 4 hours. Although TWC2 volunteers, hearing about the length of the interviews, were somewhat aghast, neither John Peter nor Hossain seemed perturbed by this. They came out feeling confident that they conducted themselves well, calmly telling MOM officers the same details and sharing what evidence they had.

Ridiculous

At the meeting, Hossain had his ten recordings on his phone, and he played them to the MOM officers. There was a Bengali interpreter there to help explain the content of the recordings.

Hossain also had copies of the recordings on a USB thumbdrive — TWC2 had prepared this thumbdrive for him in advance so that he could pass it over to MOM when asked. Yet, at the conclusion of the session (which was around 5pm), MOM told Hossain that he should burn copies onto a DVD and send the DVD to MOM by midday the following day — a deadline less than 24 hours after the end of the session.

So Hossain rushed to TWC2 and asked us for help. It was already 7pm.

“Must we do it right now?” we asked Hossain. We had run out of blank DVDs and would have to first go out to buy more stock.

“Yes, MOM say I must submit by lunch time tomorrow,” he replied. “If not, they said they will drop the case.”

So we gave Hossain some money and sent him out to buy some blank DVDs. When he came back at nearly 8pm, we burned copies of his recordings into them.

Here’s what is so ridiculous:

1. The MOM officers could have downloaded the recordings from Hossain’s phone at the meeting itself or they could have asked him to send them via WhatsApp, but they didn’t. Why not?

2. MOM could have just taken the USB memory stick from Hossain; it was meant for MOM after all.

3. Hossain, like most low-wage migrant workers, does not have a computer. Yet he was expected to burn a DVD. No consideration seemed to be given to practicality or his circumstances.

4. And then of course there’s the absurdly short time given to him to produce the DVD.

Up to the airing oof the video on 26 February 2021, neither Hossain nor John Peter have had any further news about the investigation or even whether it’s still ongoing.

Joy’s denial

At 6 minutes 37 seconds, Joy denied collecting money from Hossain and challenged the claim by asking for proof such as “money receipt”.

Just as it would be foolish to issue receipts for bribes in any situation, few takers of money (other than Seenivasan passing an ATM deposit slip to John Peter) would want the transaction documented. As Bernard Menon of Migrant Workers Centre says (at 5 minutes, 08 seconds), “it is usually in their vested interest to stay under the radar”.

Tackling such crimes must usually rely on circumstantial evidence, and Hossain going around to collect recordings from his fellow workers is indeed the way to go. Hossain told TWC2 that he had informed MOM the identities of seven of his colleagues whose conversations he had recorded. Two of them later told him that they had been called up by MOM to give evidence — and they said they corroborated Hossain’s evidence — but the remaining five had not (yet?) been called up.

Internal interview not convincing

At 7 minutes 05 seconds in the video, Jinyue Aluminium (S) Pte Ltd said they had interviewed Joy and that Joy had denied the allegations.

They also added that they would wait the outcome of the investigation — possibly referring to MOM’s investigation.

This is treating the matter too lightly. When faced with such an issue, a company should quickly engage an independent, outside consultant to conduct confidential interviews with all employees to get to the bottom of the matter, and promise to its workforce that the consultant’s report will be shared with them. If a company doesn’t go this far, employees will quite naturally wonder if management had something to hide, e.g. whether the safety supervisor was merely the middleman taking money from workers and passing a portion of it up to management.

Interesting facts reveal how endemic the problem is

One great thing about this video is how MOM provided a few hitherto unknown facts. At 4 minutes 35 seconds, the video says “84 people were taken to task for illegal employment agent activities in 2019”, and “an average of 800 cases were investigated for kickbacks each year.”

It would have been a whole lot more reassuring if MOM explained what “taken to task” actually means.

It is also curious that when it came to kickbacks, MOM spoke of the number of cases investigated but not of the number of cases “taken to task” or, better yet, prosecuted. Why so coy? we wonder.

We also note that 800 is nonetheless a high annual number, given that not all cases are reported since workers understandably fear retribution such as the sack if they report that their employers or supervisors are demanding payments. It only goes to show how endemic the problem is.

“Illegal employment agent activities” would mean an unlicensed party acting as an employment agent to fix a worker up for a job, especially if payment is taken. This party would not be someone inside the company.

“Kickbacks” would be payments demanded or received by someone inside the company, e.g. a supervisor, manager or the boss himself, either for giving a worker a job, or keeping him in the job, e.g renewing his work permit.

The job portal

Starting around 8 minutes, 36 seconds, the video briefly discusses the concept of a job portal.

Basically, the first aim of a job portal is to remedy information asymmetry. For a migrant worker, even one based here and looking for a transfer job, the first obstacle is that there is no easy, cost-free way of knowing where the job vacancies are. People who know — often their own countrymen, but ones with good connections with bosses — monetise that insider knowledge by saying they can get the jobseeker into a job, but do not really connect the jobseeker to the employer directly. Instead, this middleman (which we also call the job broker, recruiter or introducer) typically goes on to conduct the entire negotiation with the worker.

This of course leads us to wonder why bosses don’t want to be connected directly to the jobseeker, why they are happy to rely on middlemen to do all the talking and collecting of money. Might it be that they want to keep their hands clean while secretly sharing in the ill-gotten loot? Might it be that they’d prefer middlemen to exaggerate the salary being offered but later on, the employer can deny that he ever promised such a figure?

Thus, the key to breaking this exploitative gateway is to cut out any role for these illegal middlemen. Employers, or their appointed (and licensed) employment agents should be the ones dealing with the prospective jobseeker.

Proposal: Mandatory to advertise all work permit vacancies on specified job portal(s)

All it takes is for MOM to require all employers with work permit quotas to list their vacancies openly on authorised job portals — there could well be more than one and run by the private sector too — and the information chokehold that illegal agents currently have will be loosened. Workers won’t have to go around asking avaricious illegal agents where the vacancies are; they can surf the net and find them on their own.

Proposal: Mandatory to hire through the portal(s)

But, as the video points out, the portal must do more than that. The act of hiring must be done through the portal, otherwise a shady employer can simply say to the job applicant, “go talk to Sammy for details”, and then Sammy starts asking for money in a separate conversation outside the portal. We want the job applicant to formally apply for the job through the portal, submit his certificates through it, download a draft of the employment contract from it and ultimately both parties to agree through the portal.

No employer should be allowed to hire anyone who had not applied through the portal. Circumvention should be banned.

It goes without saying that only the workers themselves should be allowed to log into the portal (with their Singpasses, for example). Illegal agents should not be allowed to log in “on behalf” of job applicants, and thus be prevented from interposing themselves in the process.

At the other end, only employers (with work permit quotas) and licensed employment agents should be allowed to participate in the portal. This way, they have to stand behind the job offer they make and not misrepresent the terms of employment. In addition, there should be a legal presumption that any demand for payment for the job (outside of amounts allowed by law), if later discovered, would be deemed to have come from them, since they were the active participants in the portal hiring the workers. They cannot be allowed to plead ignorance.

The kickback problem is different

So, the portal will go a long way to dealing with the illegal agent problem. But it won’t be as effective against the kickback problem. Even if the portal would prevent supervisors and bosses from asking for payment upfront, they may very well ask workers for payment three or four months into the job — with the implied threat of termination if workers do not pay up. Or they may ask for payment if workers want their work permits renewed.

To address this problem, besides more rigorous enforcement of already existing laws, a different solution — supply chain audits — will be called for, but this topic is outside the video and so we’ll leave it for now.

Encouraging noises from MOM

What was really interesting was that when Straits Times asked MOM about the idea, MOM didn’t reject it. They simply said it was not the right time because some foreign workers did not have enough digital literacy (at 9 minutes, 12 seconds).

We at TWC2 don’t buy this argument. Neither does someone with the handle Kalo Surya commenting on Straits Times’ Facebook thread (he may be a migrant worker himself):

By কালো সূর্য:
It was really a very lame excuse by MOM. Workers will learn to use such portals by themselves if they need to. Disappointed.

By কালো সূর্য:
First things first, what refrains MOM to open such a job portal like South korea?? MOM say it is because of worker’s lower literacy? MOM should open it first and workers will learn to adopt . This should be the best way to stop these so called agents. And for workers, i should say – survival for the fittest! You learn or become expired.

Even if there are some migrant workers here who may find a digital job portal a challenge, it is not a good enough reason to go slow. Many more of them are ready to seize the opportunity to avoid illegal recruitment fees. Why deprive these savvier ones of the benefits just because some others are laggards?

In any case, non-governmental organisations will certainly ramp up their help services for those who need assistance.

Incongruent

We also find MOM’s reasoning acutely incongruent with three other areas where IT-infocom skills are demanded of workers:

1. Migrant workers in dormitories are not allowed to leave their dormitories unless they apply for and obtain an exit pass from MOM. The only way to apply for an exit pass is through a smartphone app. In this area, MOM appears supremely confident that it disadvantages no worker to impose this IT-infocom requirement on them all, without exception.

2. Migrant workers in dormitories must now be paid electronically into their bank accounts. Because of movement restrictions, they are also encouraged to download the banking app to do their money transactions online.

3. At the Employment Claims Tribunal, a worker bringing a claim (e.g. salary claim) has to submit all his evidence and written statements electronically. He has to get an electronic identity, scan and upload his documents, input all sorts of numbers and so on. If he wants to see the counter-evidence or statements by his employer, he has to log on and download them. There is no option whatsoever to do any of these things by non-IT means.

One cannot help but wonder what the real reason is for wanting to go slow.