A key plank in Transient Workers Count Too’s advocacy is that of untying a work permit holder from his employer, and allowing him (or her) job mobility. Naturally, even as he seeks alternative employment, only employers who have the requisite work permit quota will be able to employ him. We recognise that the quota (known formally as the Dependency Ratio) is an important tool for overall management of the total numbers of foreigners in Singapore.
This paper explains why TWC2 sees the right to job mobility as an essential means to reducing the abuses that so characterise the employment situation in Singapore.
Related to our argument for job mobility is the need to implement two additional measures, without which the benefits of permitting job mobility will be blunted.
- Strict clampdown on forcible repatriation;
- Creating a bias in favour of workers who are already in Singapore and looking for jobs, against fresh hires from abroad.
The present rules governing work permits tie a worker to a specified employer. When the worker is terminated, or resigns from the job, he has to go back to his home country, unless the employer “releases” him and agrees to a transfer to another employer. With domestic workers, transfers are quite commonly seen, but with non-domestic workers, who are mostly male, this is rare. Why is this so? Unlike employers of domestic workers, commercial employers think it important to send a signal to the remaining workforce that should they misbehave — and misbehaviour is framed very broadly by some employers to include any kind of speaking up — they will not only lose their jobs, but be denied any further opportunity to work in Singapore.
From the worker’s point of view, to lose the present job without being able to get a new one would be financially ruinous. Typically, he is the family’s primary breadwinner. Moreover, he would have paid thousands of dollars to get the present job in the first place, often by selling family land or borrowing from moneylenders who won’t hesitate to threaten other members of the family if repayments aren’t made on time. Especially when he has not earned enough to recover what he paid upfront, the worker in Singapore simply cannot afford to lose the present job.
The result is that workers have no choice but to put up with any number of abuses — previous stories at this site have documented many of them — such as:
- non-payment or underpayment of salary
- illegal deductions from monthly wages made by employers
- denial of medical care
- poor housing
- poor quality meals
- excessive working hours
- poor safety equipment
- psychological abuse by bosses, managers and foremen
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has a complaints window where workers can lodge complaints over these issues, but once a worker lodges a complaint, he knows he will lose his job. Quite often, when an employer so much as suspects that a worker is on the verge of lodging a complaint, e.g. the worker has demonstrated his unhappiness about unpaid salaries or not receiving proper medical care, the employer pre-emptively fires the worker and activates the process of repatriation. This is to ensure that the worker has no opportunity to make a complaint at MOM at all.
To succeed in this objective, the employer needs to confine the worker and have him escorted to the airport. Repatriation companies provide this service — and again, there are plenty of stories on this website giving true accounts of workers’ experiences.
So not only is a worker afraid of losing his job and not getting a new one, he cannot even be sure that he will be able to lodge a complaint with MOM in order to get his owed wages paid to him, or medical needs attended to.
It is this imbalance of power that lies at the root of mistreatment and abuses we see all too often.
Permit change of employer as a right
It is essential that workers not fear that they will be unable to support their families once they lose their present job. Work permit holders should be allowed to seek alternative employment without first going home.
Currently, MOM allows, on a purely discretionary basis, some workers “Change of Employer” (CoE). However, because it is purely discretionary, no worker can feel confident that, should he speak up against abuses and is then terminated in reprisal, he will enjoy CoE as a matter of right.
TWC2 has proposed that work permit holders should (unless convicted of an offence) automatically get 30 days to look for a new job after they leave the previous one for whatever reason (i.e. whether termination or resignation.) Then, at his request, he should be able to get another 30 days making a total of 60 days. Resignation should equally trigger this right, for unless he is free to resign without suffering the consequences of being sent home, abusive employers will not fear losing employees when they treat them badly.
Having exited one job, their work permits will naturally be cancelled. TWC2 proposes that MOM issues them “Job search special passes” to legalise their stay in Singapore for this 60-day period.
One question which immediately surfaces is who will be responsible for housing the worker during this period when he is on a Job-search special pass. TWC2 believes it is only fair that
- if the worker is terminated, the employer provides accommodation for the first 30 days after giving notice. (Illustration: An employer gives 14 days’ notice. Employer then houses employee for those 14 days, plus 16 more days after termination. If an employer gives only 7 days’ notice of termination, then he has to house the worker for 23 days more.) Giving a worker 30 days to look for alternative accommodation is reasonable.
- if the worker resigns of his own accord, he is responsible for his own accommodation from the day the resignation takes effect.
TWC2 anticipates that MOM will raise the concern that this will encourage job-hopping. This is to overstate the matter. Giving employees the right to change jobs merely redresses the total freedom employers currently have to terminate employees at any time and replace them with fresh hires — what is known as employee-churning. Far from unbalancing workplace dynamics, it merely restores balance when we give an equal right to employees to change jobs.
It also signals to employers the importance of treating workers better, creating job satisfaction, paying realistic salaries and not demanding that employees work in less than safe conditions. Instead of seeing the outcome as negative (“job-hopping”) the outcome from enshrining a right to job mobility is more likely to be positive for Singapore as a whole.
Limiting new arrivals
A more serious consideration is whether, even if given 60 days to look for a new job, workers will realistically be able to find one. Many workers, given CoE by MOM on a discretionary basis, have told TWC2 that while jobs are available, bosses they meet generally want them to pay $1,000 to $2,000 for the job.
While this is against the law, it is hard to gather sufficient evidence to prove it since requests for kickback are often made verbally. Meanwhile this practice persists because of Singapore’s open-door policy towards bringing in fresh new workers from China, India, Bangladesh, Burma and several other places. With such massive supply of workers needing work, it is no surprise that agents and employers feel they can charge for the privilege of giving anyone a job.
TWC2 has long recommended that in parallel with instituting a right for work permit holders to 60 days looking for a new job, measures must be implemented to control the inflow of fresh, inexperienced workers. We do not recommend using a price mechanism for work permits for new workers — i.e. higher levies — as this would raise business costs. Instead, we recommend that MOM institutes a processing wait time for new hires.
This still allows businesses to bring in new workers if they insist, but they will have to wait a while, e.g. two or three months. Such a policy will help advantage workers who are already in Singapore (i.e. on Job-search special passes) and are immediately available. The waiting period is easily fine-tuned through administrative action since MOM will have real-time information as to how many are on Job-search special passes. As the numbers increase, the waiting time for new hires can be lengthened. As the numbers decrease, it can be shortened.
Such a market-sensitive mechanism should cause no damage to businesses in need of labour.
Stop forced repatriation
Forced repatriation must be dealt with strongly. Currently, despite being already criminal under the law — see sections 339 and 340 of the Penal Code (click thumbnail at right for the relevant text) — prosecutions seem to be so rare that TWC2 hasn’t heard of any in recent years. Yet, we keep hearing regular reports by workers of employers resorting to such methods.
In addition to the Penal Code, Part III of the Fourth Schedule of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Regulations also makes this an offence:
15. Unless requested by the Controller of Immigration or the Controller of Work Passes, the employer shall not repatriate the foreign employee when such repatriation would frustrate or deny any statutory claim that has been filed or is intended to be filed by the foreign employee for salary arrears under the Employment Act (Cap. 91) or work injury compensation under the Work Injury Compensation Act (Cap. 354).
The legal tools are available. The mystery is why the state does not use them.
By making it realistic for workers here to seek alternative employment, we reduce the fear that employers currently strike into workers’ hearts. It is only when workers are more able to speak up and lodge complaints, that we will see some real reduction in the instances of non-payment, mistreatment and safety violations. However, merely allowing workers to stay on to look for alternative employment is meaningful only when we put in place a roadbump to new hires and crack down on forced repatriation.