By Gek Han

On paper, Ali Noman, 40, was employed for about five months. His work permit was issued by construction company Sun Demolition Pte Ltd last July. In reality, Ali was given neither work not wages.

“Friend say no work. Company say no work,” Ali says not with anger, but helplessness. He had been let go by his previous company after eight months, although that work permit was for two years. He then got the present job through a friend, which came with a new work permit, but was soon told by this friend that the company had no work for him. The friend also told Ali that the company would not provide accommodation; instead to “own self find room”. Without an income, Ali had to dip into his savings for food and accommodation and borrow money from his friends.

Under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, an employer must pay a basic wage to hired workers even if the company has no work for them. Ali has no idea whether his co-workers are paid by the company, because he has not even met his boss or co-workers.

In November 2015, he went to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). The officer advised him to find another job. Ali tried but was unable to find employment. According to a TWC2 senior volunteer, it is hard for foreign workers to find new employment when they are already in Singapore. Most companies prefer to take in fresh workers from overseas, because companies receive a cut of the hefty agent fees. Ali paid his agent $3,500 to come to Singapore.

Many employers also refuse to hire workers already here for another reason: these workers have been to MOM to lodge complaints, and employers take the view that these workers know their rights and the system too well. They prefer the easily-intimidated new arrivals.

The TWC2 stance is that MOM should control the inflow of fresh workers and make sure that companies tap into the existing pool of unemployed foreign workers in Singapore before new workers are hired from overseas. Retaining experienced workers will also be helpful in improving productivity.

Instead, companies are incentivised to hire new workers, and unemployed foreign workers like Ali are caught in a limbo.

Ali plans to return to Bangladesh, since he cannot find work. He will return to Bangladesh poorer by at least $3,500. Now who is $3,500 richer?