Minister for Manpower Gan Kim Yong revealed in Parliament that two employment agencies were fined for refusing to return passports to migrant workers, reported Today on January 25, 2010. The ministry further reiterated to Mediacorp that “Employers should not retain their foreign workers’ passports without their consent.”

However, it is more often employers, rather than recruitment agencies, that hold on to passports and important personal documents, against workers’ will.

Source: Today, January, 2010: Employers  passport to trouble, by Esther Ng (below)

See also letter by John Gee to Esther Ng, and Fact sheet: Retention of passports and important personal documents

Employer’s passport to trouble

It’s against the law but firms cite poaching, theft, security bond as reasons to hold on to documents

05:55 AM Jan 25, 2010

by Esther Ng

SINGAPORE – The law says foreign workers should have their passports returned to them and, last year, two employment agencies were fined for not doing that.

6P Employment and Employment Hub were fined a total of $2,600. In addition, 33 agencies were sternly warned and issued demerit points for holding on to the passports of their foreign workers.

In Parliament recently, MP for Tampines GRC Irene Ng wanted to know what measures were being taken to ensure that employers and employment agencies did not exploit foreign workers and highlighted the issue of passport retention.

Minister for Manpower Gan Kim Yong revealed that two employment agencies were being prosecuted and that eight others were under investigation.

Responding to queries from MediaCorp, the ministry said: “Employers should not retain their foreign workers’ passports without their consent.”

And even if prior consent had been given for safe-keeping purposes, employers must return passports upon the foreign workers’ request, the ministry said.

Govt ‘must do away with security bond first’

But an employer in the construction industry, a China national who did not want to be named, said her company holds the passports of its foreign employees because it stood to lose “thousands of dollars” in security deposits if the workers absconded.

“We’re not talking about one worker but possibly a large group,” she said. “And we can’t hire new workers because we (would have) filled up our quota.”

The construction industry has a dependency ratio of one local full-time worker to seven foreign workers and the security deposit for each worker is $5,000.

Furthermore, illegal poaching from other contractors is rife in the industry, she claimed. It is not unusual for workers to leave for salaries of “just $100 more”. Besides, her company spends “thousands of dollars” training these workers in China for between four to six months and the pass rate at the end of it is “very low”.

“Unless the government does away with the security bond, I think most employers will hold onto the passports,” she said.

If an employer has made reasonable efforts to locate a missing worker, the ministry will forfeit half of the security deposit – to cover the cost of his repatriation and other related costs should he be found. The ministry will also consider refunding the other $2,500 if an employer locates and repatriates a missing worker within three months.

Employers might also retain passports because of the risk of the documents being stolen.

“The workers share a dorm with so many other workers. Not all of them are from the same company,” said Aastra Manpower’s director Ferrine Chew.

Unfair terms of employmentcontracts ‘unenforceable’

There are more complaints from workers about employers confiscating their travel documents than about employment agencies doing so, the executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics,Mr Jolovan Wham, told MediaCorp.

“Employment agencies don’t usually keep the passports, if they do it is usually to apply for work permits,” he said. This was confirmed by a number of agencies.

Workers may be reluctant to demand their passports back because of contractual agreements with their bosses. For example, one of the terms in an employment contract that MediaCorp obtained states: “You may borrow your passport through a loan application if you need it to see a doctor or for other reasonable reasons. But should you fail to return it, you will be fined $500 and handed over to the police”.

Contracts that contain terms like this, however, are not enforceable.

According to the ministry: “Employment terms of workers covered under the Employment Act are subject to the minimum standards spelt out in the law, and any term less favourable is deemed null and void, and therefore unenforceable.”

The parties are otherwise free to agree on other terms of employment to suit different employment needs varying across companies but employers should ensure that the terms are fair and reasonable to both parties, said the ministry.

To increase foreign workers’ awareness of their employment rights, the ministry provides such information in “In-Principle Approval letters” that are sent to migrant workers in their home countries before they leave for Singapore. It also gives out a handbook in their native language to all new workers and organises about 20 dormitory road shows a year.