Singapore brings in hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from India and Bangladesh for the construction and marine industries. We also have large numbers of technical and professional immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. They need to eat. They prefer to eat at restaurants that serve their kind of food.

To keep their customers happy, restaurant owners would naturally look to the Indian subcontinent for cooks. But the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) disallows these restaurants from getting low-pay workers from there.

A page titled “Work Permit – before you apply” (link) from MOM’s website defines the “service sector” to include “Restaurants, coffee shops, food courts and other approved food establishments”, with the exception of food stalls and hawker stalls. A little further down the same page, it says that “Services sector companies can recruit workers from the following countries/territories: Malaysia, People’s Republic of China (PRC), and North Asian Sources (NAS): Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea and Taiwan.” You notice the glaring omission of India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan from the list of approved source countries.

tandoor_3_kinds_of_passes(Do note that the above relates only to Work Permits. The same nationality restrictions do not apply to Employment Pass and S Pass employees.)

Yet there is burgeoning demand for restaurants, cafes and catering kitchens that serve South Asian food. After all, there are hundreds of thousands of mouths to feed. Where are these restaurants and kitchens going to get staff from? Especially staff who know how to cook food their way?

Today newspaper, 20 Nov 2014, reported that a director of Blue Diamond Restaurant is in court accused of making false declarations in connection with S Pass and Employment Pass applications. Abdul Hameed Mohamed Farook, 55, allegedly informed the Ministry of Manpower that he would be paying 12 employees monthly salaries between S$2,800 and S$4,500, even though, the prosecution says, he intended to pay them salaries lower than what was declared. Taking his word for it, MOM issued the passes. If convicted, Abdul is liable to a fine not exceeding $20,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years, or both.

blue_diamond_in_courtClick the thumbnail at left to view the newspaper article.

Two months earlier, in mid September 2014, your writer met with six Indian men (five cooks and one “salesman”) who had just lost their jobs. They had been working at Blue Diamond, they said. Although we met only six men, we were told there were fifteen employees in the same boat.

Here’s an opportunity therefore, to give a glimpse of their side of the story, a side that’s not carried by Today.

The day before we met, the fifteen employees had been summoned to MOM where they had their Employment Passes and S Passes revoked. The men learned that the reason was because the employer had been paying wages far below what had been declared in their pass applications. None among the six men had lodged a salary complaint. They couldn’t tell your writer what alerted the ministry and caused it to take action. Losing their jobs was not the outcome that any of them wanted.

Four of the six had been on Employment Passes with declared monthly salaries approximately $3,750; two of the six were on S Passes with declared monthly salaries approximately $2,750. But all of them were paid about $750 a month, in cash. Which is entirely believable. Blue Diamond does not look like a high-end restaurant. It is unlikely to be able to pay its cooks and servers salaries in the three or four-thousand dollar range.


Nor did this state of affairs emerge only recently. It had persisted for a long time. One of the six men your writer interviewed had worked for Blue Diamond for about ten years. The rest had been employed for two to seven years. That they seemed happy enough in their jobs would indicate that they recognised that their actual salaries — around $750 a month — were more or less equivalent to the going rate for the kind of work they were doing.  The six we met weren’t unhappy with their boss at all. “He good boss,” they said. “Salary no problem. Every month pay, not delay.”

We can discern what has happened. The restaurant, desperate for staff but barred from hiring Work Permit-grade service staff from India, resorted to hiring them under the Employment Pass and S Pass categories. Doing so meant that the business had to declare salaries in the three or four-thousand dollar range to satisfy the criteria laid down by MOM. The director — and his workers — were all trying to make a living as best as they could under rather curious rules. Yet very likely, they’re all going to be skewered and roasted.

This otherwise straightforward story from a court reporter reveals food for thought, for the crux of the matter is this: Why does MOM not permit businesses to hire low-wage service staff from India? Why must service staff only come from East Asian countries? This strange policy creates unnecessary prosecution, and can also be said to unfairly burden restaurants that serve non-East Asian cuisine. In the absence of an official explanation for this policy, there is an unhealthy risk of race-based speculation.