By Chow Zhi Ying

Zaman (not his real name) was out of work for three months even though his work permit had not expired. After a serious conflict with his supervisor, who demanded money from him, his boss agreed to give him a transfer letter. It would allow Zaman to join another company if he could find another job. But three months on, that has proved extremely hard.

“All month of April and May I try to find, but cannot find”, he says.

It wasn’t as if there weren’t any jobs available, but it was immensely difficult finding one that did not require him to pay unreasonable amounts of money as kickback to his new employer. It would have been easier — and he was tempted as he got more desperate — to be a ‘release worker’ instead.

Welcome to Singapore’s underground economy.

What is a ‘release worker’? Zaman explains: “I pay levy of $700 but work outside.” In other words, it is a foreign worker who is officially under the employ of a boss with a work permit quota. But this boss does not have work to assign, so the worker goes out to find illegal work at another location.

The deal is like this: The worker gets a work permit to make his stay in Singapore legal, but the worker has to pay the boss a sum of money to cover the Foreign Worker Levy as well as for the boss’ profit. $700 is more or less the going rate; see an earlier article on this site “Pay me $650 or I’ll cancel your work permit”. ‘Release work’ is apparently a far-from-rare arrangement.

Zaman claims that he “personally know four other worker under ‘release'”.

$700 does not seem an attractive fee to pay just to stay on in Singapore while working outside, or does it? Before losing his job, Zaman’s monthly salary was only around $1,100 including overtime.

But such is the demand for extra workers by employers unable to get quota that they pay a premium for them. “Outside you can work and get $60 a day,” Zaman reveals, elaborating, “If I take the release, I can find my friend, and he can get me a job that pays $60 a day in construction. If I do OT [overtime], can get two thousand dollar up.”

Paying the levy and giving the formal employer a profit should not be a problem. By contrast, “If I go back Bangladesh, I can only earn $300-$400 a month, and if I want to come back, need pay agent fee again.” Thus, being a release worker is lucrative.



However, it comes with risks. Not only is it illegal to work at a site that is not your formal employer’s business or construction project, the other (i.e. no-quota) employer is also under no obligation to provide housing and food for the worker. Furthermore, should the worker sustain any injury during work, he is not covered by insurance and the no-quota employer can literally leave him to die on the roadside. Taking the worker to hospital and revealing that he is an illegal hire would expose the no-quota boss to prosecution and jail. Leaving an injured worker by the roadside and disappearing into thin air might appear the better option to the heartless and calculating.

Fortunately there were two happy turns of events.

Firstly, Zaman’s old boss would not hear of it. He was prepared to transfer Zaman (according to proper procedure) to another employer but he didn’t want to be involved in the shady business of releasing a worker who remained formally on his payroll to the underground economy.

Secondly, the supervisor who had caused Zaman so much grief left the company. This made it possible for Zaman to return to work for his old boss.

It was the least bad of options. “Very difficult to find a good employer,” he observes. “If good employer, can stay in Singapore long time, make money.”

This is his second employer here, for whom he first began working in November 2012. Zaman first came to Singapore in 2009 for a different company, after attaining his secondary school qualifications in Bangladesh. He’s a fast learner — and considered a skilled worker here — and in fact has adapted so well, one can hardly tell from his mannerisms if he is local or foreign.

Nevertheless, his heart is with his family in Bangladesh — a father, mother, and two younger sisters (one is married and the other is studying). He is his household’s only source of income as his father has a back injury and is unable to work.

In the three months that he was searching for a new job, TWC2 provided him with support for his food and accommodation.