By Fuxiong

Torikul’s hoped-for second job in Singapore never materialised. Instead, he’s $4,500 in the red, having paid this total sum to an ‘agent’ and the boss. Getting it back is going to be difficult.

He borrowed this amount from his father-in-law, who mortgaged his small plot of farmland to raise the money for him. Now Torikul Islam Azbar Ali, 28, is worried sick about money-lenders pressing for repayment.

The so-called agent (name: Tajul Islam) was a Bangladeshi co-worker in Torikul’s previous job. Torikul had worked in Singapore from 2009 to 2012. Tajul is now with a different company — a furniture company, says Torikul — but told Torikul that he knew of a good job opening in Castmo Tech Electrical Pte Ltd. The In-principle Approval for a Work Permit — a letter issued by the Ministry of Manpower — stated a salary of $750 a month for this construction sector job.

Torikul arranged for his brother, who’s also working in Singapore, to pass the $4,000 to Tajul.

Paying for his own airticket, Torikul arrived in Singapore on 31 August 2013. He paid for his own medical check-up ($35) and Safety Orientation Course ($100) too, which should not be the case. It took a week before Tajul passed Torikul the phone number of Castmo’s boss; Torikul was naturally anxious about starting work.

Recalls Torikul: “When I call boss — his name ‘Guggen’ — he say, ‘You wait. I give you thumbprint first, after [that] I give you job.'” Among migrant workers, ‘thumbprint’ is the term they use to refer to the process of converting their In-principle Approval into a proper Work Permit.

Torikul describes the boss as an Indian Tamil.

Over the next two months, “I every week call this boss two, three time.” Each time, more promises were made but nothing really happened. Then, about two months after Torikul arrived in Singapore, the boss got more explicit. “Boss say [to] me, he not have money,” recounts Torikul. “He say I pay him $1,000, after [that] he arrange permit for me.” Further details from the worker suggest that the proposal was that Castmo Tech would obtain for Torikul a formal work permit, which would legalise Torikul’s stay in Singapore, but it would be up to Torikul to find illegal work for himself under another employer. From whatever Torikul then earns, he would be expected to continue to pay the boss a monthly sum that would cover the levy that Castmo Tech would have to pay the government, plus a profit on top.

With his back to the wall, Torikul arranged for an Indian friend to pay $500 to the boss.

But soon after, either because the boss still did not deliver the work permit, or Torikul changed his mind, Torikul went to lodge a complaint at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). This was around 12 November 2013. Torikul provided MOM with phone numbers of Tajul Islam and the boss. MOM should be able to trace them and call them up for investigation.


The law

Tajul could be said to be acting as an employment agent without a licence. Section 6(1) of the Employment Agencies Act says:

EAA, Section 6(1): No person shall carry on an employment agency unless the person is the holder of a licence from the Commissioner authorising the person to carry on such an agency.

The penalty is a fine of up to $80,000 or imprisonment of up to two years or both.

Guggen and Castmo Tech may have breached Section 22B of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, which says:

EFMA, Section 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 employ the foreign employee,

shall be guilty of an offence and shall on conviction be punished with imprisonment for a term of not less than 6 months and not more than 2 years and shall also be liable to a fine not exceeding $6,000.

In addition, the boss asking Torikul for $1,000 and receiving $500 so far can also be considered an offence. Paragraph 5 of Part III of the First Schedule of the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations, (page 35), states:

5. An employer shall not demand or receive any sum or other benefit from an employment agency or any other person in connection with the employment or change in employment of a foreign employee

The penalty for the first offence is a fine of up to $10,000 or imprisonment of up to twelve months, or both.


Fairly common scam

TWC2 vice-president Alex Au tells me this kind of job scam is something that the organisation sees quite often. “It is very unlikely that Tajul kept all $4,000 for himself,” says Alex. “One cannot help but suspect that a portion of it has gone to Castmo Tech or the boss personally.

“There are black sheep around who make tidy profits out of foreign workers with schemes like this,” he adds. “They take money for offering bogus jobs, and later expect the worker to find his own work. They then hope to continue to make a tidy profit out of the worker who has to give the ‘official’ employer each month a cut of what he has earned outside, to cover the levy and more.”

The only way this can be stopped is if MOM prosecutes both Tajul and the employer and publicises the cases.


Inadequate response by MOM

Another side to the problem is MOM’s “inadequate response” to Torikul’s plight, says Alex. Torikul says MOM has allowed him to look for a proper job in Singapore, assuring him that if he can find one, MOM will issue a new six-month work permit.

“First of all, it won’t be easy for Torikul to find a new job,” Alex points out, “because employers are likely to ask him for more money to pay for the job.

Too often, employers make money from a cut of agent fees paid by fresh arrivals from India or Bangladesh. “Why should they employ Torikul unless Torikul also pays the same rate, all over again?,” asks Alex rhetorically. “Moreover, some employers are adamant that they will not hire any worker who has ever complained to MOM; they only want workers who are meek and don’t know their rights.”

To give Torikul a fair shot at a new job, MOM has to crack down harder on such kickbacks and also restrict the inflow of fresh workers. “TWC2 made this point in its recent submission to MOM on needed law changes,” adds Alex.

Secondly, MOM should be extending to Torikul the option of a two-year work permit, he says.

Torikul himself also thinks that the six months’ period for a new job that MOM has offered him is too short. If he does not get back the $4,000 he paid to Tajul and the $500 he paid to the boss Guggen, then “I must make back $4,500 from new job. In six month, how to make so much?”

Indeed, many construction jobs pay only $600 to $800 a month. With overtime, perhaps $1,000 a month. But, in order to make back $4,500 to repay his father-in-law, he must save $750 a month. That’s very tough.

“I must eat also,” he points out.