Prabhu was unhappy about his boss’ tactics that reduced his earnings, and came to us in March 2016 seeking advice. For over a year, the construction company that employed him didn’t have enough work to keep all its employees occupied. Management (sort of) rostered the workers, such that in each month, there would be several days when Prabhu (not his real name) had no work at all.

How was the ‘rostering’ was done? Explains Prabhu: “Boss send me [sms] message like this, say ‘today take leave’ or ‘tomorrow take leave’.” Prabhu would then have to stay in his dorm with nothing to do. It wasn’t his choice to take leave.

On returning to work the day after, he’d be made to sign what seems to us (from Prabhu’s description) to be a leave application form. “Must sign,” Prabhu told us. “If not sign, boss not give work again.” Refusal to comply meant that ‘leave’ would be extended. “I must work. If not, where have money?” Prabhu points out, when asked why he acquiesced to signing the ‘leave’ forms.

No copy was ever given to him, so we are unable to see if the leave application forms were backdated.

The problem is that through the months, so many days of unasked-for leave had been accumulated, it exceeded the number of days of paid leave that Prabhu is entitled to under the law. Thus, all extra days of ‘leave’ would be unpaid leave. In the last six weeks (36 working days) alone, he’s been told to take fifteen days’ leave. That would mean a significant pay cut.


Turned away by Manpower Ministry

Before coming to Transient Workers Count Too, Prabhu first went to consult with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Was it right that his employer could compel him to sign leave application forms? he asked MOM.

Based on what Prabhu reports to us, MOM apparently told him there was nothing they could do since he had signed the forms.

“But if I not sign, boss not give me work,” Prabhu reiterates to us again, his frustration at MOM’s response quite evident. “Boss may [even] send [me] home.” Indeed, in Singapore, an employer has complete freedom when to sack a worker. Prabhu felt trapped into signing, but having done so, it now leaves a documentary record which MOM considers completely legitimate.

This despite the fact that Prabhu has saved the text messages which show clearly enough that the ‘leave’ days were demanded of him. “MOM say sms not proof,” Prabhu tells us.

The ministry’s response fits a pattern. They fold their arms, refusing to assist workers, effectively telling them they brought their misfortune upon themselves when they willingly signed this and that. They resist applying their minds to the situation. It shouldn’t take much mental effort to understand that Prabhu was under some duress when he was asked to sign the forms, yet such effort seems too much for bureaucrats to make. There is a convenient assumption that foreign workers have complete freedom and agency, and if they foul things up for themselves, it’s due to their own foolishness and recklessness.

A closer look at reality reverses the arrow of responsibility.


Who created the conditions that allow employers to put workers in duress?

This closer examination begins with a simple fact: A worker like Prabhu would not be allowed to seek a different job unless he gets consent from his present employer. You can imagine this consent to be well-nigh impossible to obtain, because the employer’s thinking would be ‘If I allow one worker to resign and find another job, all the others would want to do so too.’

But where does this rule about needing the present employer’s consent come from?

From MOM. It is MOM that has laid down this rule which leaves the worker with no good choices.

Let’s say, Prabhu nonetheless gets so sick of this employer that he plainly resigns. Without permission from this employer to look for another job, he’d have to be repatriated. He’d have to try to get a new job from back in his home country, which means he’d need to go through an agent. With their control over the avenues of job-seeking, agents charge exorbitant fees, typically $3,000 to $4,000 for a repeat placement.

The effect is this: to assert his right not to sign the leave form is going to cost the worker $3,000 to $4,000. In practical terms, he cannot be said to enjoy the freedom to not sign the form, especially when the preceding months of slashed salaries have left him cash-poor.

This consequential financial penalty for resigning can be traced to another MOM practice: closing an eye to the exorbitant fees charged by job agents.

It doesn’t take a high IQ to see that in reality a foreign worker’s freedom of action and agency is substantially reduced through policies and regulations instituted by MOM — and its neglect of market distortions. To then refuse to help a worker because he ‘should have’ exercised his freedom and agency responsibly (i.e. Prabhu should have refused to sign the forms) is to engage in farce. One cannot create conditions that severely circumscribe another’s freedom of action and then put blame on that person for not exercising his (imaginary) freedom of action.