On Tuesday morning, December 13, 2011, the boss of RegiCo (pseudonym of company name) called 23 employees, all migrant workers, to his office and announced that the company was bankrupt. “You should go to the Ministry of Manpower after this,” he advised.

One would think the men would have been anxious about losing their jobs, but that would not be the correct reading of the situation. None of them had ever worked for the company.

How could that be?

Welcome to yet another employment racket in Singapore’s shadow economy.

Abul Tarim (not his real name) was one of the 23 men. He paid about $3,500 to a recruitment agent in Bangladesh to get a job in Singapore, arriving here in July 2011. The agent had told him that he would earn about $25 a day, but when the In-principle Approval (IPA) for Work Permit was sent to him, the document showed a monthly salary of $540, which was later explained to him to mean $18 a day. (There are a lot of things wrong with such calculations, but it would distract from the story to go into them. Suffice it to say that even these numbers indicate violation of the law.)

Two days after arriving in Singapore and having obtained the formal Work Permit, the boss told him and others who came with him in the same batch that actually, the company had no work. He put a Hobson’s choice to them: Agree to immediate repatriation or look for other jobs on their own. Immediate repatriation was out of the question; the men had just paid thousands of dollars and had yet to recover a cent of it. As for looking for other jobs, it is not clear whether the men knew it would be illegal. It would be most unlikely for RegiCo to inform them of that fact.

“But boss also say, if we look for outside job, ‘every month pay me $550 – $570 for the levy’,” reported Abul Tarim. A quick check at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) website reveals however that the government levy for the construction sector ranges from $180 – $380 per month per Work Permit issued. RegiCo’s profit opportunity now becomes clear.

Somehow, the men found work, putting themselves at severe risk of arrest — it is illegal to work for an employer other than the one declared on the work permit — jail and deportation, but five months later, on December 13, it came to an end when the boss called them all to his office for the meeting.

After going to MOM that afternoon, Abul Tarim found his way to Transient Workers Count Too’s soup kitchen in Little India where he told our volunteers his story. What were his options? He wanted to know. What was going to happen to him now?

He was still clinging on to hope that his boss would help him find a new job. “This morning, boss said: ‘After you go to the Ministry of Manpower, I will pay for your airfare to go back home. But I will help to find new jobs for you, and when I find them, I will send for you again and you can come back to Singapore.’ ”

TWC2 asked him: “Did he say anything about a new agent’s fee? Would you have to pay another $3,500 to come to Singapore again?”

Abdul Tarim shook his head, now realising what might well be people’s true motives.

With his limited English, it was hard for Abul Tarim to explain what transpired at MOM.  This too raises the question of whether he even understood what MOM might have told him, though from the documentation that he showed TWC2, it was obvious that his RegiCo Work Permit had been cancelled and he had been put on a Special Pass allowing him to stay one more week in Singapore (renewable). The Special Pass made it clear that he could not work. However, according to Abul Tarim, an MOM officer told him that he could look for work, and if successful at doing so, a new Work Permit would be issued to him under the name of the new employer.

Would he have only a week to do so? Would his Special Pass be extended so that he had more time to find a new job? At the time of writing, all this remains unclear.

More importantly, would MOM insist that RegiCo refund the monthly payments of $500 to $570 that the men had handed over to RegiCo? It would seem only fair, as well as insisting that RegiCo pay the men their agreed salaries of $540 for the preceding months. Or would MOM simply send the men home a week from now and close the file on the matter, thus letting RegiCo keep its ill-gotten gains?

Is RegiCo really bankrupt? One possibility is that RegiCo had been caught by MOM sending its employees out to do illegal work, and was having all its work permits terminated anyway, but the boss chose to give bankruptcy as the reason to the men. But this only suggests that if RegiCo had not been caught, the scheme could have gone on for a long time.

TWC2 will try to monitor the case, but may well hit a wall, with MOM refusing to share information.