Mahabubul Abul Khayer’s employment history illustrates how exploitative and disgraceful Singapore’s record of using foreign labour is. Repeatedly, employment agents made thousands of dollars out of him. At least in the early years, he got in return a job through which he more or less recovered what he had paid. Lately, however, the practice seems to be descending into one where after a worker has paid his fee, the job is cancelled with no refund.

This steady worsening of the situation is reflected in the increasing number of workers showing up at TWC2’s Cuff Road Project looking for help. In early 2011, TWC2 was serving about 200 meals a day; by late 2011, it was closer to 300.

Mahabubul’s story also illustrates how laxity on the part of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) encourages such unethical behaviour. The deliberate policy to allow employers to offer and cancel Work Permits at will, and at any time of their choosing, creates opportunities for scamming. There is no indication that MOM is even concerned about the matter, let alone considering tightening up on rules.

At Cuff Road one evening, Mahabubul stood out from among the crowd of frustrated out-of-job workers with his English: he was unusually fluent. Your correspondent soon learned that he had been working in Singapore off and on for some twelve years. His history went like this:

1999 to 2001: Paid about $4,000 to secure a construction job, and stayed for the two-year duration of his Work Permit. His basic salary was $600 a month, with overtime, he earned about $700 or $800 a month. His Work Permit was not renewed, nor did he ask for renewal. “At that time, I didn’t even know that it could be renewed,” he said.

2003 to 2005: Paid another $3,500 to an employment agent for another construction job (different company). Stayed for the 2-year duration of the Work Permit, but again not renewed.

2006 to 2010: Paid yet another $3,500 for a third job, also in construction. After the first two years, it was renewed twice, each occasion for one more year. Each time, he was charged $1,500 by his employer for renewal of the Work Permit, when such charges are illegal. MOM’s fee for renewal of Work Permits (payable by employer) is only $20 – see this page on the ministry’s website.

December 2010: Paid an agent $3,600 for a new job in Singapore, for which he received a document known as In-principle Approval for Work Permit (IPA). This document would allow him to enter Singapore and then to collect his Work Permit after passing a medical examination. However, when he went to Dhaka airport to catch his flight, he was told the IPA had been cancelled (this is almost surely an act of the employer, because MOM rarely does this). His Bangladeshi agent refunded him only $1,500. He believes the rest of the money had gone to the Singapore agent and possibly to the employer and was not recoverable by the Bangladeshi agent.

March 2011: Paid another $3,800 for a construction job with a company which shall be referred to here as “SBgn”. Like before, the In-principle Approval was faxed to him. This time, he flew to Singapore without incident. A company manager picked him up at Changi airport, put him up at a dormitory in the Serangoon area, and took him to the mandatory medical examination the following day.  When the medical results came back, they would go to MOM for the thumbprint and the finalisation of the Work Permit, the manager told Mahabubul, a process that was in line with Mahabubul’s previous experience.

“I waited 15 days,” Mahabubul said, and he never came back. “Every time I called him, he said he was still waiting for the medical results, but I knew it should not take so long.

“After that, when I called again, he said he was overseas and I must wait. But after one month, I still heard nothing from him, so I asked my friend to check my IPA status, and my friend told me that it had been cancelled.”

Without being informed, Mahabubul had become, technically, an illegal overstayer. He quickly went to MOM to lodge his complaint against SBgn. It appeared that MOM took his complaint seriously from the fact that it was referred to the Kim Seng branch of the ministry which investigates breaches of law. MOM placed Mahabubul was placed on the Temporary Job Scheme (TJS) for six months, under which he found a job for a while, but that too soon came to an end.

MOM then gave Mahabubul a further 15 days to find his own job in Singapore. At the time of the interview, he had found one, but it had not been confirmed. He remained on tenterhooks.

What about the company SBgn? Said Mahabubul to TWC2: “I asked MOM what they were doing about it? But they said ‘the matter closed’.”

Either MOM found that SBgn broke no law, or that if they did, they were deciding not to prosecute.

Yet, it wasn’t an isolated case. Over several months in late 2011, many more workers came forward to TWC2 feeling wronged in similar ways and mentioning the same company. Is doing nothing the best and most responsible path for the authorities to take?