A TWC2 survey conducted in January/February 2021 found that male migrant workers who want to switch employers face something of a minefield.
Difficulties include navigating the maze of necessary permissions, payments to middlemen, and lack of understanding of relevant online services. Employer permissions are particularly fraught, often withheld, often leading to acrimony, sometimes complicated by arguments over pay or conditions. When a prospective new employer talks with a worker’s current employer, rancour plus encouragement to avoid “poaching” (an anti-competitive practice at odds with the concept of free labour markets) can undermine a transfer which would otherwise lead to a happier outcome.
Underlying workers’ situations are two major fears: being sent home, something which can happen even when a worker has found another employer willing to engage him, or entering the “limbo” of a protracted dispute during which he cannot earn a living.
These problems cost Singapore as well as the workers, especially at a time when there are labour shortages in some sectors. As well as the costs to taxpayers and employers of administering the permissions maze, they contribute to the loss of experienced workers, the costs of bringing in new workers, sub-optimal matching of employers and workers, and the hit to the country’s reputation when the international media spotlight falls on the plight of Singapore’s migrant workers.
Workers interviewed also cited illegal practices, from the withholding of passports (reported by 46% of our interviewees and apparently regarded as standard practice in some quarters) to a number of cases where prospective employers demanded payment in return for jobs.
Our recommendations include: allowing workers to transfer freely between employers, separating immigration control from employment control, allowing workers with salary disputes to work while their dispute is being settled, and reducing if not eliminating recruitment fees using a combination of online portals and enforcement of legislation.