Foreign worker levy rates have been rising in recent years and the trend continues through 2014 and 2015. The present rate for unskilled construction workers who are hired beyond the employer’s MYE (Man Year Entitlement) rose from $750 to $950/month in July 2014, and will reach to $1050/month in July 2015. The Straits Times quotes the president of the Singapore Human Resource Institute as saying that companies have to adapt and make changes to ensure that hiring lower-skilled workers is “Still justifiable in terms of cost-performance benefit” but that some sectors are “likely to feel the heat more strongly.”

They won’t if those companies employ foreigners as release workers. A release worker holds a valid work permit, but arranges his own work with the consent of the employer, something like a freelancer. This isn’t legal since transient workers are supposed to work only for the employer named on the work permit and aren’t allowed to change employers. The release arrangement benefits the worker because he can negotiate the terms of his employment and isn’t tied to the company, and it benefits the employer because he needn’t bid for contracts, own or maintain equipment and the employer can demand that the worker pay the cost of the levy.

Until July, release workers typically paid their employers around $1,000/month to ensure the validity of the work permit, though this has increased by $200 along with the rise in the levy rates.

The system that ties workers to one employer gives both employer and employee reason to find ways around the regulation. Both have some deniability as they can claim that the employer uses the men as supply workers with other companies. Ultimately the arrangement allows the employer to profit as the worker pays the employer to continue the work permit whether or not he finds work. If transient workers were allowed to switch jobs, they would be able to negotiate the terms and conditions of the job, and wouldn’t be forced to accept such an exploitative agreement.

This is the story of S, a release worker. He was previously with The Cuff Road Project (TCRP) while waiting for injury compensation and became well known and well loved by many of our TCRP volunteers during that time. He returned for another job earlier this year. He’s not eligible for the food program as he holds a valid work permit.

silhouette_manface“I came for this job in January 2014, my third job. While working at the second job my foot was injured and I went home 16 months after the injury with $14,000 in compensation. The doctor here told me not to come to work again because the injury was quite serious, but the money didn’t cover my family’s debts so I felt I had no choice. I passed my passport to a friend and asked him to help me arrange another job.

My father had borrowed lots of money for my two previous jobs and is now being hounded by loan sharks. During the time I was home, almost every day someone would come to the house to harass us for the money. My father has a heart problem and my two younger brothers are still small so I’m the only one with any earning capacity. I don’t care what happens to me but as the oldest son I’m responsible for my parents and my brothers.

My friend took $3,000 for this job. After I gave him the money he told me it was a release company and that I could find work that wouldn’t be too hard for me with the injured ankle. I agreed, but then this man cheated me when he forced me to pay another $1,000 after I arrived in Singapore.

My friend let me stay with him at the house on Jalan Besar when I first arrived. I stayed there for 20 days but couldn’t sleep well because of all the commotion of people coming and going at all hours of the night. I don’t know what they were doing. I paid for my medical exam and the SOC (Safety Orientation Course) and found my own place within a month.

The first job I found was replacing water risers. I had to carry and lift the heavy pipes, first at a 5-storey building in Geylang. I worked there for one and a half months but never received the salary. I cried and called my father. He and my mother pleaded with me to come back home but I couldn’t give up so early. My friend lent me $3,000 to keep me going. I haven’t yet paid back all of what I owe him.

I started out paying $1,000 to the agent every month. After a few months the boss told me to pay the money to him directly, and he raised the amount to $1050. On good months I can earn $2,000. With $1,050 to the boss, $220 for the bed, $200 for makan, $150 for the bus and some for personal items, that’s barely $400 left to send home. What’s worse is that I’ll have to pay more from July, and finding work every day isn’t easy.

The boss seems like a nice man as long as I can pay him in time. When I’m late with the payments he threatens to cancel my work permit. He’ll call me everyday to ask for the payment but I don’t answer his calls when I can’t pay.

He has about 50 release workers. I don’t know the exact number, but I’ve seen the serial numbers that he sticks on the work permits so I guess it’s about that number. We all work as release workers but he sometimes uses us as supply workers. If the MOM investigates we can say that we work as supply workers, but actually we need to arrange our work. The supply work isn’t enough to provide us with regular work but it sometimes fills the gaps.

The higher levy is only for unskilled workers. I had a skills certificate but the agent from my previous job kept all the men’s certificates so that we can’t claim that skill when looking for another job. He can’t use them for other workers so it’s a sort of punishment to deny the certificates to those of us who could use them.

When I need work I call my friends and ask if they know of any work. Last month I earned only $1,800. I was sick for five days and found work only 20 days

Many people work like this. Some men don’t know that this is the way they’ll be working and they can’t tolerate the system. I knew what I’d be doing but I didn’t know that it would be this difficult. When I finish one job the boss might tell me that there’s no need to come again. It’s a real headache for me. If not for the money I have to pay the boss, I’d be doing well.

My friend who lent me the $3,000 is a good man who grew up not far from my house in Bangladesh. He left school after primary school and I went on to finish my Higher Secondary Certificate.  My friend spent five years working in Saudi Arabia, built a big house and now has a wife and young daughter. Look at me: I have nothing but a worthless HSC. I might as well throw that certificate in the rubbish for all the good it’s done me.

I shouldn’t have come. I’d go back if I could, but I’m worried about my father. The people asking him to pay back the money have threatened to kidnap me and hold me until my father pays a ransom to let me go. I’ve had bad luck with my jobs in Singapore, but if I go back nobody will help me. I work as hard as I can and put up with the pain in my ankle to support my family. My little brother keeps asking me to buy him a bicycle but I can’t explain to him how hard that is.”