By Kellynn Wee and Marusa Godina

The Singapore passport is powerful. According to the international 2014 Visa Restrictions Index, this neat crimson document offers Singaporeans visa-free travel to 167 out of 219 countries in the world, making our passport sixth in the world in terms of global mobility.

Singaporeans’ easy trips in and out of holiday hotspots contrast with the inflow of migrants who come here to work. While we hang on tight to our passports while overseas, migrants must give theirs up to brokers, agents, and employers in order to work in Singapore.

“In a perfect world,” Debbie Fordyce says, “the workers should hold on to their passports. But given what we have now…”

Debbie is the TWC2 executive committee member who coordinates the Cuff Road Project, TWC2’s “soup kitchen” for injured workers.

She tells us that construction workers who come to Singapore from Bangladesh or India are met at the airport by their agent or the employer. These men immediately surrender their passports to the person who greets them.

According to the Passports Act, it is against the law for employers and other persons to retain passports without “reasonable excuse”. In 2010, two employment agencies were fined $2,600 for retaining domestic workers’ passports.

Yet despite the existence of laws which forbid the retention of identification documents, migrant workers continue to give up their passports, apparently willingly, and employers are often anxious to hold on to them. What are the conditions which create this particular situation in Singapore?

An imperfect world

After arriving, the construction worker goes for a medical check-up and has his Work Permit made at the Ministry of Manpower. Throughout this process, he seldom holds on to his passport — an agent or his employer will safeguard it and produce it at the necessary junctures.

Most men are comfortable with surrendering their passports, but this is because workers frequently do not have private spaces in dormitories to store their belongings. Due to this lack of access to a secure private space, most construction workers also have to keep their phones and wallets on them at all times, even when they are sleeping or wearing comfortable clothes such as sarongs while off work.

As a result, many construction workers have little choice but to leave their passports to their employers for safekeeping.

Spite and malice

Problems arise when a man has to stop working due to an injury or a salary dispute with his employer.

When this situation occurs, the migrant construction worker is put on a Special Pass, which extends his stay in Singapore while the injury or salary claim is processed. When a worker is on a Special Pass, he is not allowed to work.

The worker’s passport has to be shown every time his Special Pass is extended.

At this point, the passport is usually held by the employer. When it is time for his Special Pass to be extended, some employers deliberately withhold passports to inconvenience the construction worker.

There is no benefit to the employer in doing so, as withholding a worker’s passport does not affect the legal processing of the salary or injury claim.

“The employers seem to behave as they do out of malice,” Debbie says. “Often, in these cases, the employer may have physically beaten the worker, refused to return the passport, and then claimed to never have had the passport at all and that the worker must have lost it himself.”

If the passport is deliberately withheld at this point, the worker cannot extend his Special Pass, which makes his stay here in Singapore illegal. As a result, men risk arrest and possible deportation.

In these cases, the worker must make a police report and apply for a new passport — kickstarting administrative processes which take time, energy, and money.

Not only is the process of engaging with a foreign bureaucratic system a daunting undertaking for a foreigner whose stay in Singapore is precarious, but workers are short of the money they need to cough up to get the passport replaced.

For a Bangladeshi worker, applying for a passport costs between $191 – $286, depending on the urgency of the request. As workers cannot work when they are on a Special Pass, this is considered a princely sum.

Even while they are working, Bangladeshi construction workers  mostly earn less than $20 a day.

The lorry driver and the passport

Polash and Palush, two construction workers who  approached TWC2 for help in 2014, faced problems with an employer who claimed to have lost their passports. According to the employer, a lorry driver had ‘run away’ with them.

“How can boss man say he have passport, and then next day say he don’t have passport?” asks Polash.

Debbie and Karno, TWC2’s social worker, believe that one way to resolve this problem would be to institute a simple system: at point of entry, workers should trade their passports for signed notes which indicate that their passports have been handed to their employers for safekeeping.

This will protect workers who may encounter employers who ‘misplace’ passports in the future.

“There is nothing to gain from withholding a worker’s passport,” says Debbie. “It is common knowledge that employers hold passports, but the worker often cannot produce any proof, which limits what the Ministry of Manpower can do. Whether or not the employer has lost it intentionally, the worker will have to pay for a new one at the end of the day.”

But Debbie and Karno also acknowledge that their solution remedies a symptom, and does not attack the root of the problem — which is the worker’s acute vulnerability when he is in Singapore.

While this article focuses on the immediate problems of Bangladeshi construction workers, withholding passports — a practice common amongst employers of domestic workers as well — denies all migrant workers a legal document that asserts their rights as citizens of their countries. It also diminishes their freedom of movement: in fact, the International Labour Organisation defines the retention of identification documents and passports as an indicator of forced labour and exploitation.

On a more personal level, it is a cause of undue stress and worry for any migrant worker, who may be anxious about his or her ability to return home safely.

Defenders of the law

Sometimes, law firms who take up cases of work injury compensation will hold on to construction workers’ passports while managing their claims. Lawyers can stand to earn substantial amounts from work injury compensation cases.

If a worker decides he wants to discharge the lawyer, the lawyer may demand a sum of money from the worker before returning his passport. This is a form of illegal extortion, but to TWC2’s knowledge, this is a common practice.

Debbie and Karno say that TWC2 and workers face more passport-related woes from lawyers than employers. Instead of assisting migrant workers who have very little bargaining power, lawyers are turning the screw instead.

Passport retention is one of many issues that migrant workers in Singapore face with their documents. Construction workers often do not receive itemised pay slips, are pressured to sign blank salary forms, or have their wages arbitrarily deducted without good reason.

Some employers receive money from illicit kickbacks: just recently, the managing director of a construction film was was sentenced to jail and fined $169,000 for receiving kickbacks from workers.

Workers’ vulnerabilities are often due to their exclusion from formalised documentation, and their unfamiliarity with local procedures.

What can be done

In the short term, giving workers standardised signed notes which indicate that a worker has given up his passport to his employer for safekeeping is a simple system that can be instituted which may help protect the worker in the future should any disputes arise between him and the employer.

The lack of a secure space is one of the reasons that workers decide to give up their passports. Providing safe lockers for workers in dormitories may afford them more privacy and control over their valuables.

Frontline officers, such as the police, can be better sensitised when dealing with passports disputes. Some officers believe that lawyers have a right to charge the worker before the worker reclaims his passport. Lawyers should be advised on the illegality of retaining a passport in order to obtain money from workers.

Employers feel compelled to keep workers’ passports largely because of the government-mandated security bond, fearing that they will lose their deposit should a worker abscond and isn’t repatriated within 30 days. They hold on to workers’ passports to minimise the financial risk to themselves.

There are alternatives to confiscating passports in order to gain workers’ loyalty, such as focusing on building relationships of trust, open communication, and professionalism. These ways are better in the long-run: they benefit both sides and lay the foundations for a long-lasting professional relationship.

Long-term employee-employer relationships allow workers to gain skills and experience which increase productivity and minimise workplace safety issues, and give employers a chance to relax and focus on the job instead of worrying about the loyalty of their employees.

In the long term, the usage of the security bond to ensure that workers are returned home at the end of their period of employment should be rethought.

With increasingly sophisticated techniques of documentation and a more restrictive policy on issuing In Principle Approvals, Singapore can rely on controls at its borders to manage the coming and going of migrant workers.

We should allow greater mobility within Singapore to anyone who remains in the country during the validity period of his/her latest Work Permit instead of allowing the threat of repatriation to hang like a black cloud over the heads of migrant workers.

Under subsections 2 and 3 of section 57 of the Passports Act, Singapore passports cannot be given as a security, pledge, deposit or encumbrance.

Although this specific subsection does not apply to foreign passports, it is indicative of what we expect of ourselves — and how we might do better by migrant workers.