Three months after he arrived in Singapore for his job, Amin Hajee Baten, 39, was filled with renewed hope. His agent, whom we shall call Mr E, had finally given him a specific address in Peninsula Plaza, which Amin assumed would be where he should report for work. At long last.

Peninsula Plaza is an office tower in downtown Singapore.

As Amin entered the 10th floor office, he met a man of Indian ethnicity. “My agent ask me to give him my passport and [work] permit,” said Amin, “so I give him.”

“Then he go inside one room and when he come out, he give me photocopy of permit, and say I must go back to Bangladesh. He also keep my passport.”

Amin asked him why. The man told him his work permit had been cancelled. Naturally, this turn of events came as a shock.

At once, the worker made his way to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to lodge a complaint.

He had arrived in Singapore on 28 November 2011, and was put up in a hotel near Mustafa Centre by Mr E. On Day Two, he was given an address of a clinic in Aljunied where he went by himself for the necessary medical examination. A week later, with the clean bill of health in hand, Mr E took him to a branch of the ministry at Tanjong Pagar to be thumbprinted, and this was followed by the issuance of a Work Permit in the construction sector. It listed his employer as HS Flex Industries Pte Ltd. There is indeed such a company listed in the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority’s website.

But he never started work. One month on, his agent was still telling him, “Now looking for job, you wait, wait.”

Amin tried to contact the employer directly. Its office address was somewhere in the Serangoon area. “But the company telephone always off,” he reported to Transient Workers Count Too.

The agent then persuaded Amin to go back to Bangladesh while the search continued for work. It made more sense that way as the cost of staying on in Singapore was very high. So Amin took up the offer (the airticket was purchased by the agent, according to the worker). But after a month back home and feeling increasingly uneasy — Amin had paid $2,500 to agents for this job — he came back in February 2012. His work permit was still live.

He confronted Mr E again, and that was when he was told to show up at Peninsula Plaza.

At MOM after the incident, the officer sketched out a plan of action for Amin. The worker should go back to the office and if it was open, call the police.

This Amin did.

When the police came, Amin told the police what happened, emphasising the part where his passport was taken from him. The people in the office then assured the police that they would “settle” everything, and the police left — without regaining possession of the passport for Amin.

After the departure of the police, Amin overheard one of the men in the office make a phone call to a certain Ravi — whom Amin claimed to know by reputation as an unsavoury repatriation agent — requesting for flight and other arrangements to be made. Somewhat alarmed, Amin once again hotfooted it out of the office to MOM.

The MOM officer made a call to the employer. Within twenty minutes, a Mr Farouk showed up with Amin’s passport.

“After three month, this is first time I see my boss. Three month, I waiting for work.  Have no work, and I never see him before.”

He subsequently heard that there were 13 other workers filing similar complaints about this boss.

Amin was given a Special Pass to legalise his stay in Singapore while investigations began.


Possible offences

It is perhaps a bit premature to say what offences the employer was guilty of, but based on Amin’s account, there are a few possibilities.

Passport offence

Section 47 of the Passports Act makes it an offence to retain another person’s foreign passport without “reasonable excuse”. Unfortunately, what could constitute “reasonable excuse” is not clear. The employer could say that he needed the passport to purchase the man’s airticket, and to ensure that he did not run away prior to repatriation.

This fear of workers running away prior to repatriation is in turn created by the government imposing a $5,000 bond on employers. One could the argue that passport abuses spring from this act of government.

Salary offence

Failure to pay the minimum declared salary is breach of a condition of the Work Permit — which has the force of by-law:

… the employer shall, regardless of whether there is actual work for the foreign employee, and subject to any written law, pay the foreign employee no less than the fixed salary amount declared in the application for a Work Permit submitted to the Controller.

According to Amin, the salary declared on his In-principle approval for a work permit was $750 a month. He did not receive this salary while “waiting” for his job, but calling it thus may be erroneous. A plain understanding of the work pass system would be that his job officially began the day the work permit was issued (why else is the name of an employer engraved on the work permit?), only that he was not given anything to do, and not paid. (But see When did job begin? below)

Another condition of the Work Permit says:

The employer shall pay the salary (including allowances) due to the foreign employee not later than 7 days after the last day of the salary period.

The ‘salary period’ cannot exceed one month, so by early January, when Amin’s December salary would have been due and yet was not paid, an offence could have been committed.

But when did job begin?

The difficulty with the clauses about the obligation to pay the stated salary and on time is that an employer can argue that the worker had not begun employment even though the work permit had been issued. The law is not explicit about this though a plain reading of its intent might suggest that they are inseparably linked. This interpretation is also supported by another condition of the Work Permit, which says:

… the foreign employee shall be under the employer’s direct employment

But if work pass issue date and job contract start date can be two separate dates, then the employer can argue that Amin had never started employment and so was not entitled to salary.

New offence

Perhaps in recognition of this blind spot in the existing law, the proposed amendments to the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act include a new offence. Its proposed wording is:

22B (1) Any person who —

(a) obtains a work pass for a foreign employee for a trade or business that does not exist, that is not in operation or that does not require the employment of such a foreign employee; and

(b) fails to employee the foreign employee

shall be guilty of an offence…

The penalty is imprisonment of not less than 6 months but not more than 2 years. A fine of  up to $6,000 can also be imposed on top of that.


Temporary job scheme

Generally, foreign workers who are victims of some sort of scam are given a chance to earn a living while being kept here for investigation requirements., through what is known as the Temporary Job Scheme (TJS). Workers are given 6-month attachments with pay with a shortlist of employers.

In a letter to the Straits Times, 22 August 2012, MOM said as much:

Foreigners assisting the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) with investigations into employment-related offences are issued with special passes which legitimise their stay in Singapore . . .

Special pass holders are allowed and encouraged to take up employment either on a new two-year work pass or on a temporary basis under the Temporary Jobs Scheme till the conclusion of their cases.

This sounds only fair. People have to have the means for survival after all.

But Amin’s case also indicates that the picture is not as rosy as painted by MOM’s letter. He complained to the ministry in late February 2012. As is clear from even a short story as given here, a prima facie case can be made out that he is a victim of either a scam or gross negligence. Possible offences have also been disclosed. By MOM’s own criteria, he should have been eligible for TJS almost immediately.

Yet, he was left to fend for himself without any permission to work for five months.  It was only in August 2012 that he was put on TJS. He was told to go into a special holding area where prospective TJS employers would be waiting to interview candidates. He went there. There was a queue of men. The line wasn’t moving.

“No employer come,” he said. “Officer say come back next week.”