Before leaving their home country for Singapore to take up new jobs, Aman Ullah and Rafiqul Islam received a letter each from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Titled “In-principle Approval for Work Permit”  and commonly known as “IPA”, the letter stated their jobs, the name of their employer, their basic monthly salary and other allowances and deductions.

The third page of the letter informed them of their rights and responsibilities. Here’s a sample of that page, provided earlier to Transient Workers Count Too by MOM, for a fictitious employee.

Aman Ullah and Rafiqul Islam would have taken note of item A above — that they would be working in a specific job for a specific employer. It is an offence for a foreign worker to do a job other than the one he was recruited for, or to actively work for an employer different from the one named in his Work Permit.

Both men were contracted to work for the same employer, which is not necessary to name here, but which was described in both their IPAs as a construction company.

Aman Ullah’s job was described as “Welder and flame cutter”. On the right is the relevant part of his IPA, stating that he is permitted to work as one in the construction section sector.

Rafiqul Islam’s job was described as “construction worker” as can be seen from this fragment of his IPA below:

The reader might also notice this sentence in the above example: “If you find a problem with the details of your employment, please contact your employer or employment agent immediately.” As later events would show, this is almost a cruel joke.

Both men arrived in Singapore, on December 14, 2011.

They worked two days, the 15th and 16th. Rafiqul was asked to work as a grass cutter. Aman Ullah was asked to do welding work in a shipyard.

Rafiqul said: No, cutting grass is not construction work, and I would be in breach of the law, liable to be arrested, if I continue to do this job.

Aman Ullah said: I am supposed to be working for a construction company, not in the marine sector. I could get into trouble. He had also injured his foot.

They did exactly as the IPA told them to do: contact their employer because the jobs they were given did not tally with the conditions of their work permits. But as is obvious from the above — did the MOM not anticipate such a  situation? — the source of the problem was none other than the employer himself, who promptly terminated both men and made plans to repatriate them.

Monday, December 19th, they came to TWC2. We sent Aman Ullah to the hospital to get his foot treated, and he was given a follow-up appointment for the 22nd. Then on the 20th, they went to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to lodge a complaint.

It is possible that in speaking to MOM, the men stressed a bit too much on the fact that they had paid a handsome fee for the job and were now facing a net loss, rather than the fact that they had been deployed by their employer outside the conditions of the work permit. According to the report the men gave TWC2 afterwards, the MOM officer focussed almost exclusively on the issue of payment, telling the men that since they could not prove they had paid an agent in Singapore, there was nothing the ministry could do to help them.

Such a burden of proof is impossible, because typically the men do not pay a Singapore agent directly; it is their Bangladeshi agent who shares the fee with the Singapore agent.

It is also understandable that from the men’s perspective, recovering their fee was more important to them at that moment than getting MOM to prosecute the employer.

With the men cut adrift by officialdom, the employer was at liberty to repatriate them, doing so on the 21st. TWC2 learned that in fact five men were sent home, not just Aman Ullah and Rafiqul Islam.

Immediate repatriation is completely legal. In fact, the law requires it as soon as work permits are cancelled (by the employer) unless MOM steps in to issue the workers with Special Passes, which MOM didn’t do in this case. That the employer has total freedom when to terminate an employee, and with no notice period, is also legal as the men have only been at work two days.

There are two issues here:

1. The employer appeared to have attempted to break the law deploying the men to jobs or sectors outside the conditions of the work permits. However, since no formal statements were taken from the men as prosecution evidence,  it does not appear that MOM is intending to enforce the law.

2. MOM’s system is designed to appear helpful to workers, but in fact stymies them at every turn.  The processes for recourse come with such high thresholds of proof, or are directed back towards the employer, that for all practical purposes workers get no help, and are left paying the price for the employer’s misdeeds. Does this sound right to any reasonable person?

There is another angle to consider: Who paid for the five men’s flights home? The employer. It would have cost him around $700 – $800 each.

Perhaps the employer decided that it was a loss he could bear. Perhaps he calculated it was better to pay the airfare than to face prosecution, so the quicker he sent the men back, the better.

But TWC2 volunteers who have worked with hundreds and thousands of foreign workers often hear of employers getting a cut of the recruitment fees paid by workers, even though this is illegal. If that’s the case here, the employer would not be out of pocket for the return ticket. If his cut of the recruitment fee from each man was more than $800 (quite likely), he would still make a profit despite paying for the men’s repatriation.

Singapore prides itself on its rule of law. On the ground it is sometimes hard to find evidence of it.