The law says that if a foreign worker is terminated within six months of starting a job in Singapore, the Singapore agent who placed him or her in that job shall refund 50 percent of the fees to the worker (Employment Agencies Rules 2011, section 13). Two recent cases seen by Transient Workers Count Too demonstrate that reality is far different.

Wang Beiyun (not her real name) paid her agent in Jiangxi 30,000 yuan (about S$6,000) for a job in Singapore, packing vegetables. She was promised that the job would pay $1,000 per month. She came to Singapore, leaving behind two children aged 16 and 13, and started work on 10 September 2012.

At first, things were exactly as promised. She found herself cellophane-wrapping vegetables for delivery, and was paid a basic salary of $650 with monthly allowances of $150 for overtime and $200 for housing.

Then, just short of six months into her job, she was told that her performance was “not good enough”  and given a termination letter. Wang was devastated and didn’t know who to turn to for help. She had not yet earned enough to cover the 30,000 yuan she had paid to get the job. Fortunately, one of her friends was already a worker known to TWC2, and he mentioned her problem to us. She soon came on her own to our office.

Her case is a typical one, paying a large sum of money to agents for a job of no guaranteed duration. The employer had the right to terminate and, to be fair to employers, why not? Surely employers have a right to terminate workers who don’t perform.

The only thing she was entitled to was a refund of fifty percent of the Singapore employment agent’s fee. However, here is where the lack of documentation is a problem. Typically, migrant workers use an agent in their home country, not an agent in Singapore. In Wang’s case, while her China agent collaborated with a Singapore agent to locate a job for her, she was not privy to the arrangements between the two agents. What portion of the 30,000 yuan that she paid in China went to the Singapore agent?  Without knowing (and being able to prove) this, how could the 50-percent refund be calculated?

TWC2 advised her that her lack of documentation would be a major stumbling block.

Jiangsu native Li Guomu, 25, (not his real name) had a similar problem to Wang. He was terminated within one month of starting his job. He too had paid 30,000 yuan to an agent in Shandong for an S-Pass job as a carver of fengshui installations (miniature mountains and waterfalls), but his boss was shocked that he had no relevant skills at all.

Li’s training had been at a hotel and catering school.

He took this fengshui-making job only because he was promised a good salary, more than he could make in the hospitality industry in China. It appears that there was some serious miscommunication between the agent in China and the boss in Singapore, to put it mildly, as to his suitability for the job — but that is not the point of this story. Nevertheless, once terminated, Li found himself in the same financial hole as Wang. He did not have any documents showing how much the Singapore agent was paid. Claiming a 50-percent refund would be difficult.

As it turned out, both Wang and Li came through the same Singapore agent. After much pleading from Wang, the agency offered her a $600 refund as a goodwill gesture, but by this point, she had learnt that her China agent had remitted 22,000 yuan (S$4,400) to the Singapore agent. Believing (without proof) that this sum was what the Singapore agent profitted from her, she became adamant that she should be getting half of that ($2,200) as refund.

TWC2 tried our best to explain to her that without formal documents, it will be hard for her to get her way.

Li did not even get a goodwill offer. However, he managed to find another job in Singapore – as an S-Pass holder it is possible for him to change jobs here. Nonetheless, he has to write off the 30,000 yuan he paid his agent for the first job.

The issue revealed by these two cases is a common one. Although the law says that if a worker loses his job within six months, Singapore agents must refund half the fee, in practice it doesn’t work out that way for lack of documentation. Low-wage migrant workers do not deal with Singapore employment agents – they deal with home country agents – and therefore do not know how much the Singapore agent was paid.  Although the Ministry of Manpower’s online application form for work permits asks for a declaration as to the Singapore agent’s fee, this does not appear to be a mandatory field.  In any case, how does one know whether the figure declared is genuine? Wouldn’t there be every incentive to under-declare, in order to limit refund liability?

This is a problem that needs a thorough review.