By Poh De Sheng

Moorthy, an Indian national, is the sole breadwinner for his family, which consists of his wife, young daughter and parents. He came to Singapore a year and a half ago after being promised a basic salary of $429 per month by a local recruiter in India. However, what seemed like a promising situation has since turned sour, with exploitation and later abandonment by both his recruiters and employer landing Moorthy in dire financial straits.

To begin with, Moorthy had to pay $4, 000 upfront to his local recruiter in Tamil Nadu, India, before an In Principle Approval for a Work Permit (IPA) would be offered to him. It’s a typical story for workers from India and Bangladesh — having jobs in Singapore arranged by agents in the home country rather than by agents in Singapore.

It may be an area worth more investigation why employers in Singapore do not go through Singapore-based agents. If at all they do, the Singapore agents are just engaged to do the most basic of paperwork with the Ministry of Manpower. This can be seen from the fact that virtually none of the workers who come to TWC2 report having to pay any licensed agent in Singapore, not even when, on the rare occasion, a licensed job employment agency is named on their In-principle Approval (IPA). The vast majority of Indian and Bangladeshi worker IPAs do not name any Singapore agent at all.

Singapore has laws governing the licensing of Employment Agencies. Sections 6(1) and 6(2) of the Employment Agencies Act make it illegal to operate an employment agency without a licence, or perform any similar work without a licence. However, it does not mean that an employer must go through a Singapore-licensed agent to look for workers from abroad. Employers can use agents based in source countries, and doing so has one chief advantage: Singapore law governing the maximum amount that potential workers can be asked to pay for their placement does not apply.

Section 12(1) of the Employment Agencies Rule 2011 (i.e. subsidiary legislation to the Employment Agencies Act) says:

…  the fees that a licensee may charge or receive from an applicant for employment, whether directly or indirectly, for emplacing the applicant for employment with an employer on or after 1st April 2011 shall not exceed —

a) where the applicant for employment is a foreign employee, one month’s salary for each year of —

(i) the period of validity of the foreign employee’s work pass; or

(ii) the period of the contract of employment,whichever is the shorter, to be pro-rated according to the total relevant period, subject to a maximum of 2 months’ salary of the employee.

In Moorthy’s case, if his hiring had been arranged by a Singapore-licensed employment agency, the maximum he would have to pay would be his basic monthly salary ($429) multiplied by two (since his IPA is for two years). That’s $858 — a far cry from the $4,000 he was made to fork out.

A point to consider is this: Even if an employer uses a Singapore-licensed agency, there may still be a source-country-based employment agent involved, and the latter does not have to comply with Singapore law. It is not clear what laws apply in India, or whether they are enforced at all.

So a person like Moorthy, even if limited to paying $858 to a Singapore-licensed agent (should one be used) might still have to pay another separate sum to an Indian agent. That said, for a low-skill job, there is really no need for multiple layers of employment agents. The selection for best fit for the job is hardly a complicated exercise. However, stamping out such profiteering behaviour will require coordinated action by both the Singapore and Indian governments. Foreign recruitment is a transnational business and unless different governments work together, exploitation can thrive in the gaps between the authorities.

Moorthy’s travails did not stop there. His employer also severely undercut his salary by implementing all manner of illegal deductions..

“Everything also cutting”, lamented Moorthy as he recounted the monthly deductions that his employer made. There were the commonly seen ones for “savings money” and well as for room rent. On top of that, deductions were made for use of electricity, gas and water. It is worth noting that Moorthy’s employer provided no catering for workers, so Moorthy often had to buy his own rice and vegetables and cook his own meals, driving up his costs.

Most absurd of all, Moorthy had to pay a deductible for his transport to work, a fee that was especially galling since the transport to and from work was on a company vehicle. He had no choice in the matter.

In all, Moorthy, with the inclusion of his overtime pay, was supposed to receive around $650 a month, but in reality he would receive only $350 -$400. When asked whether this was enough to support his family back home and recoup his recruitment fees, Moorthy responded with a sad shake of his head. “How can enough?”

On the issue of deductions, a senior TWC2 volunteer remarked that it is typical that workers are unaware that they are illegal if they are unreasonable and unjustifiable. Further, even in cases where they are aware, workers are often powerless to protect themselves. Existing employment laws are such that there is no such thing as illegal termination, so any worker who complains will simply be fired by his employer.

As difficult as these conditions were, things soon took a turn for the worse. Moorthy had the top phalange of his thumb sliced off in a workplace accident. Although he received prompt medical attention at Mount Alvernia hospital, his initial efforts to procure injury compensation proved fruitless. “My company, anything happen, one cent also no pay”, said Moorthy. Further, Moorthy was soon let go by his employer. Having seen his co-workers being forcibly repatriated by his former employer after suffering injuries, Moorthy engaged a lawyer and turned to TWC2 to avoid suffering the same fate.

Nursing a permanent injury and with no income source, Moorthy currently resides in a rented room, paying $230 a month out of whatever meagre savings he has. It is unclear how much longer he can sustain himself while he waits out his case.

Moorthy’s is a typical story from among the hundreds of cases TWC2 sees each month. They are the men thrown out by employers who take no further interest in them when their economic value is lost due to injury, however small — but not till after extracting as much money as they can out of them.