By Troy Lee based on an interview in July 2017

In the early hours of Friday, 7 July 2017, Md Raiful Islam touched down at Changi airport, looking forward to start on a new job. By midday, he was devastated. The job did not exist.

He had paid about 465,000 Bangladeshi taka (about S$8,000) for it. Now the money’s gone.

His documentation was in order. He had with him an In-principle Approval for Work Permit (IPA) issued by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), indicating a job with Hexa Build Pte Ltd. He showed it to Immigration and was cleared to enter Singapore. Without a valid IPA, he couldn’t have entered the country since he didn’t have a tourist visa.

Here’s the IPA:

Raiful’s so-called ‘agent’, a certain Alim, had given him two phone numbers to call on arrival. Alim was a fellow Bangladeshi located in Singapore. Possibly he was on a Work Permit himself too. However, calls to both numbers went unanswered.

Raiful then made his way to the company’s address as stated in the IPA. It was quite far away, in Woodlands, but with a little effort, he found it. A lady answered the door.

Recalls Raiful, “She say ‘You coming for what?’ I say ‘I have your company IPA.'” She then told him there was no job for him, despite the IPA issued in the company’s name.

“Madam then called agent office,” — here, Raiful is referring not to Alim, but to a local employment agency (probably Sg Global Consulting Pte Ltd, which was listed in the IPA as the Singapore employment agency recruiting him on behalf of Hexa Build) — “and a man come to company office around 2pm.”

Raiful was asked to follow this man to his office in Ang Mo Kio. What’s strange is that Sg Global Consulting’s office is listed as 65 Ubi Road 1, #02-86, several kilometres from Ang Mo Kio. So who was this man who had been called to collect Raiful from the company’s office?

“Is like factory building” is how Raiful describes the place he was brought to.

At this Ang Mo Kio location, Raiful recounts, “One Indian man, he ask me ‘Why you come?’. I say I have IPA. He say, ‘Your IPA cancelled already. You don’t know?'”

“I say, ‘I don’t know. Nobody inform me.'”

Now, let’s look closely at the dates on the various documents.

The IPA’s application date was 30 May 2017.

On or around 12 June 2017, Raiful was given his copy of the IPA — which assured him that his employment was confirmed — and he then paid 465,000 taka. He paid into a bank account at Bangladesh Islami Bank nominated by Alim. Raiful believes the account belongs to a relative of Alim.

A few weeks later (he’s not sure of the date) he received an air ticket for a flight departing the evening of 6 July 2017.

But the IPA was cancelled on 4 July. He said he learnt this only after arriving in Singapore. A day or two after being dumbfounded, he went to a shop  which could help him check his status. The document below was then printed out for him. It says the IPA was “cancelled/withdrawn”.

Someone wrote in pencil a possible reason for the cancellation: “long time not coming”. If indeed that is being given as the reason for cancellation it sounds very suspicious. After all, the application was only submitted on 30 May 2017 and Raiful was in Singapore by 7 July. In any case, the ticket was bought for him; Raiful didn’t take his own sweet time to arrange his own passage.

On Monday, 10 July 2017, Raiful made his way to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to lodge a complaint. An officer there confirmed that the IPA had been cancelled. When Raiful protested that he had paid a huge amount for the job, “MOM officer say, ‘You give money in Bangladesh, how can [MOM] settle?'”

MOM told him that he must go back home.

Thursday, 13 July, Raiful went to the company’s office in Woodlands again, for reasons unclear. The office called the employment agency again. Once more a man came over to to pick Raiful up. There was a lorry.

Raiful recounts: “I ask him where going. He at first say going to [his] office. I say what for? Then after many time I ask, he say, going to airport.”

“I quickly jump out of lorry.”

The next day, he went to MOM again to complain but MOM was not sympathetic. According to Raiful, MOM too called the employment agency, telling them to buy a flight ticket. “MOM say, ‘You settle yourself in Bangladesh.'”

That was where things were at the time of our interview. He seemed resigned to repatriation, unfair though it was. “Nobody help me. MOM also not help,” he said as he got up from his seat.

If he’s back in Bangladesh, he may be facing moneylenders now. He is $8,000 poorer.

Somebody is $8,000 richer.

This case reeks of a scam. The most frustrating aspect is the attitude of MOM officer on the frontline dealing with Raiful, not wanting to take an interest in the matter. When we took the matter higher up, there was more interest, but the response was so tardy, there was hardly anything that could be done to save the situation.

Firstly, we look at the response from higher up:

TWC2’s social worker emailed MOM on 17 July, soon after Raiful came to us, to alert them about the case, and to ask for a closer look. A more senior MOM officer gave a holding reply a week later on 23 July. This was followed by a more positive email from this senior officer on 6 August:

” … would you be able to ask Mr Raiful to come down to MOM to raise the complaint? The officer will then record a formal statement and the matter can be looked into.”

We tried but could not reach Raiful by then. It’s worth noting that by this date (6 August) it had been 30 days since Raiful came into Singapore (on 7 July). His 30-day social visit pass (i.e. his entry stamp on his passport) would have expired. When we later managed to speak to Raiful’s brother-in-law, he told us that Raiful had been sent home “long time ago”, without receiving any assistance from MOM.

A September email from MOM confirmed that Raiful first made contact with MOM on 10 July 2017 (exactly as Raiful told TWC2), and revealed that:

  • MOM took the position that since payments were made in Bangladesh, “there was no offence committed by the Singapore [employment agent].”
  • “The IPA of the worker was cancelled before he came to Singapore as the employer had waited for more than a month for the worker to arrive and had found a replacement worker by then”, and
  • the Singapore employment agent “had attempted to source for new employment for the worker but was unsuccessful and hence, the worker returned home on 18 July 2017.”

The above ‘explanations’ were likely fed to the senior officer by MOM’s frontline ranks. They therefore reveal the neglect at the frontline when Raiful first went to the ministry. We will explain the neglect below.

The frontline at MOM:

The timeline demonstrates how suspicious everything was, yet MOM did not immediately smell a scam. Firstly, the airticket was bought by the employer or its employment agent or Alim (the unofficial employment agent) for Raiful. Raiful did not arrange his own passage or fix his own date of arrival. How can an employer then say that they had waited “too long” for him? In any case, based on the large numbers of foreign workers that TWC2 has come across, a five week lapse time between the date of IPA issuance (in this case, 30 May 2017) and his arrival in Singapore (7 June 2017) is very normal. This convenient ‘explanation’ by the employer or employment agent was accepted by MOM without any critical thinking.

Secondly, MOM took the employer’s or Singapore employment agent’s assurance that they “attempted to source for new employment” far too much at face value. Raiful had 30 days on his visa, yet they rushed him out of the country by 18 July, only 11 days after coming here. Is it believable that they made sincere efforts? Is MOM too ready to be fooled?

As for agent money paid, isn’t it a bit of a contradiction when the IPA itself said $468 was payable to the employment agent SG Global Consultant Pte Ltd, yet MOM took the position that all monies were paid outside Singapore?

Fourthly, Raiful had told MOM that a certain Alim was involved. Alim was based in Singapore — and Raiful said he had given MOM Alim’s phone number — which means that here within our jurisdiction was someone acting as an unlicensed employment agent. Does this not  interest MOM?

In any case, the point is not whether an offence has been committed, but whether parties have been using loopholes in law to commit a scam. If authorities are going to take a purely hands-off position that so long as a loophole is used, nothing worries them even if victims come forward, that’s a very poor standard of public service. It’s called: Going by the book and not caring if outcomes are plain wrong.