In response to the article Employer’s passport to trouble, published in Today, January 25, 2010, John Gee wrote to journalist Esther Ng:

Dear Esther,

I hope that you’ve had mostly positive reactions to your article on the retention of migrant workers’ passports by agents and employers.

It is an issue that TWC2 has raised a number of times with the MOM, first of all concerning the taking of passports held by domestic workers by agents and employers, in order to control their movement, and later, concerning male workers too.

Any seizure of personal effects by agents or employers is wrong, in our view. In any other context, such behaviour would be viewed as criminal, and yet we hear of employers seizing workers’ handphones and passports. The MOM gives leaflets to workers that explain their rights and give them its helpline number, but in many cases, agents or employers seize these leaflets and brochures at the first opportunity, in order to put one more obstacle in the way of a worker who believes she has been wronged from appealing for help.  We have pointed out the absurdity of this situation to the MOM on a number of occasions: it goes to the trouble of translating information materials into the different languages of workers and putting them into the workers’ hands, but does not act to prevent others from seizing them – an act we believe to be illegal, just as taking any possession of another person would be.

There’s a particular legal issue with passports, as they are the property of the issuing governments, issued to citizens as passport holders, not passport owners. So to take a passport from a worker is not only objectionable because it is an infringement of her right to freedom of movement, but an affront to the government and country that issues it.

In a letter to then Acting Minister of Manpower Gan Kim Yong (dated 23 October 2008) that focussed on the position of South Asian male workers who were lured into paying for jobs that turned out not to exist, we said the following:

10. One (issue) is that of the use of passports to control workers’ movements, including their ability to leave employers with whom they are having problems. We believe that neither agents nor employers should be permitted to take passports or personal documents away from workers (that includes work permits and the cards advertising the MOM helpline, as well as the helpful pamphlets the MOM provides to new workers). As passports are the property of the government that issued them, not of the holder to whom they are issued, an individual or company that takes a passport from a foreign national is acting against a foreign government’s property. The seizure of a passport and its withholding from the rightful passport holder is, we believe, contrary to Singapore’s own law and the matter has been raised on occasion in the past. We consider that employers need to be reminded that they may not take or hold workers’ passports and that if they have them for any reason, they must surrender them to the legal bearer without hesitation upon request.

We received a reply dated 13 November 2008 and signed by Mdm Wong Wei Phing, Head of the Customer Relations Branch for the Divisional Director of the Foreign Manpower Management Division. A paragraph responding to the point above said:

‘On withholding passports of foreign workers, employment agencies are prohibited to do so under employment agency licensing regulations. MOM will take action against errant employment agencies. In addition, under the Passports Act 2007 administered by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA), it is an offence for a person to possess or control a foreign travel document that was not issued to him without reasonable excuse.’

Our contention is that the desire of an agent or employer to control a worker’s movement is not a reasonable excuse.

Yours sincerely,
John Gee
President, Transient Workers Count Too

See also:  Fact sheet: Retention of passports and important personal documents