We are using a pseudonym for the worker involved since he is still in employment with the same company, and we need to protect him from retribution for speaking out.

“Every day hard job cannot do, mem (Ma’am).”

In April 2021, Juwel (not his real name) reached out to me, saying his back-breaking job was taking a toll on him. A typical day would see him welding, fitting, and carrying steel beams around the construction site. He was exhausted and battered. To make matters worse, Juwel was also being verbally abused by the boss’ wife.

As anyone would be in such a situation, he wanted to transfer to a new job and employer.

Overwork: Juwel’s employer requires work hours that may violate Singapore law.

When TWC2’s caseworker looked at Juwel’s salary voucher and timecards for April 2021, they revealed that:

  • Juwel had only one day off in April. He worked 29 days out of 30 in the month, including three Sundays and one Public Holiday.
  • His hours were from 8am to 10pm most days with only a one-hour break. He was working 13 hours a day.
  • He clocked a total of 143 hours of overtime in April, nearly double Singapore’s legal limit of 72 hours of overtime per month (see footnote 1)

According to the MOM regulations, employers must apply for an exemption (see footnote 2) in order for their employee’s overtime to exceed the legal limit of 72 hours. Juwel doesn’t know if his employer applied for an exemption that allows employees to work up to 14 hours a day. Even if such exemption was granted by the MOM, up to how many extra hours can Juwel be made to work? Surely not double the legal limit. TWC2 suspects that Juwel’s employment, which involves ‘continuous and manual operation of machinery’, may not fall into a category of work that is eligible for exemption. (see footnote 3).

No wonder Juwel was so exhausted and wanted to switch to another company.

Split payment: Why?

The salary arrangements for Juwel were unusual. His monthly payslips state hours of overtime much less than stated on his time cards. As an example, we show below in the column “Company’s calculation” what was stated in his payslip of April 2021. The column “TWC2’s calculation” shows what we think he should have been paid for the same month taking into account his time cards and the basic salary declared to MOM in the In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit (see footnote 4).

Officially, he was thus paid less than what was due. But Juwel received extra, unrecorded paymetnts in addition to the amounts on the payslips, amounts which, mysteriously correlates with the extra overtime hours not included in the payslips.

Why would an employer take the trouble to split salary payments like this? Was it to keep the extra overtime hours undocumented?

Transfer denied

Work Permit holders like Juwel cannot transfer to a new employer without their current employer’s consent. When Juwel asked his boss for permission to transfer, the boss said “No”, and threatened to send him back to Bangladesh if he wanted to quit the company.

If this had occurred before Covid-19, Juwel might have considered returning home rather than continuing the back-breaking work and risk to his health. He could have then paid another agent for a new job in Singapore however expensive it might be (see footnote 5). However, the Covid-19 pandemic changed everything. Juwel knew that if he was repatriated now, his chances of returning to Singapore would be very slim, at least until Covid-19 restrictions are relaxed. Going home now would create a dire situation for his family financially.

Now what?

The caseworker helping Juwel has known him for almost two years now. Despite the difficulties with his employer last year, he has shown strong resilience and determination to carry on so that he can send money to support his wife and infant daughter in Bangladesh. Our caseworker, however, became concerned about his life and health on hearing about his work conditions and the employer’s refusal to consent to a transfer.

Through a WhatsApp group chat with Juwel, a Bengali interpreter and our caseworker, we explained the options available to him: 

Option 1

The first option would be to report to the authorities the possibly illegal overtime required by his employer. If MOM then intervened, the excessive overtime hours might be reduced, or MOM might “persuade” the employer to give consent to a transfer. Our sense was that this was wishful thinking. What was almost certainly going to happen would be the employer cancelling Juwel’s work permit on learning that he had filed a complaint. Should that happen, MOM itself might grant Juwel the option to look for a transfer job. Other caseworkers that were consulted about this option were pessimistic about a positive outcome, perhaps because in all these years, they have not seen MOM take much interest in excessive overtime.

Juwel might also file a salary claim for the shortpayments over the months, but he might end up stuck here in Singapore on a Special Pass (which would not allow him to work) for months until the case was resolved.

Option 2

The second option would be for TWC2 to report the possibly illegal overtime without disclosing Juwel’s name (to avoid retaliation by the employer). This option unfortunately opened up too many unknowns. The employer would certainly want to find out who the whistleblower was. Could Juwel really remain anonymous? What if the employer somehow focussed on another worker as the possible whistleblower and took “revenge” on that guy? Juwel might feel guilty about it.

Option 3

The third option would be for Juwel to hang on and wait until his work permit neared expiration (the end of 2021) and then use the 20-day transfer window (see footnote 6) to look for a new job without the need to obtain the employer’s consent.

This option was not as good as it might seem.

Firstly, it would mean having to endure many more months of long working hours and underpayment.

Secondly, there was no certainty that Juwel would even get the 20-day no-consent-needed window. If the employer unilaterally renewed Juwel’s work permit before the window period kicked in, Juwel would not get to enjoy the transfer window. His choice would then be reduced to

(a) accept the work permit renewal and perform more backbreaking work for the one or two years of the renewed work permit;

(b) resign — which would automatically mean repatriation (workers who resign have no right to transfer).

Even if the employer were to choose not to renew Juwel’s work permit, and Juwel then gets his 20-day transfer window, his chances of actually finding another job is uncertain. MOM allows only a small number of workers to switch jobs in such manner (see footnote 7). The new rules say, for example, that in a year, a new employer with 200 or more workers on his payroll can only take in four other workers who are switching jobs without the former employer’s consent.

After weighing the options, Juwel decided to continue working until his work permit expires and try for a transfer then. He explained to us that he could not risk potential harm to his co-workers by making an anonymous report or risk financial harm to his family by being repatriated. We were not surprised by his decision. The truth is, TWC2 sees many migrant workers making similar decisions — to continue working despite dangerous conditions and illegal demands for fear of repatriation and to keep food on the family’s table.

1. Employment Act (Chapter 91), s 38(5)

2. ‘Hours of work, overtime and rest day’, MOM, 18 November 2020, link. See also: Employment Act (Chapter 91), s 38 (5) and s 41A (1)

3. ‘Annex A: Work Activities For Which Overtime Exemption Will Not Be Granted’, MOM, 18 November 2020, link.

4. The In-principle approval letter (IPA) serves as an employment contract to many migrant workers when the employer does not provide any contract or Key Employment Terms (KET). The IPA states very basic terms such as monthly basic salary, allowance and deductions.

5. Migrant workers often have to pay a hefty illegal agent fee to middlemen to get a job in Singapore. For example, Juwel paid approximately S$3,000 to a middleman in Bangladesh for his current job.

6. Singapore allows work permit holders like Juwel to request to transfer to a new employer without the current employer’s consent if the application is made within the 20-day time frame (40 to 20 days before Work Permit expiration). However, TWC2 has observed that even transfer requests made within the permitted 20-day time frame may be unsuccessful – due to an objection by the current employer or some other factor beyond the worker’s control. See also this.

7. ‘Work Permit: hiring an existing construction worker’, MOM, 24 February 2021, link.

8. At the 11 September 2017 sitting of Parliament, then-Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say said: “All foreign workers with valid salary claims are allowed to change employers. Source: Offical reports of Parliamentary debates, link.