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Sarowar (not his real name) approaches our help desk hesitantly. Despite being in his mid-thirties, he does not exude much self-confidence. Maybe it’s because he knows his English is weak, and what he has to tell us is fairly complicated.
However, it didn’t take us long to grasp the nub of the problem: Someone had used documents bearing the name and logo of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to defraud him.
We advised him to raise the issue with the ministry. He did as advised, and tried to lodge a formal complaint. He told us later that the official he met with showed no interest in the matter. “He don’t want to open case,” Sarowar reported.
One would expect that any bank, corporation or institution which hears that its name and letterhead have been used to commit fraud would be very, very interested. It would certainly investigate and do whatever is necessary to prevent a repeat of the incident. Apparently not MOM. Says TWC2 vice-president Russell Heng, “Officials should not be so cavalier” about people being victimised through misuse of the ministry’s name.
Sarowar is an experienced construction worker. He has previously worked nine years in Singapore and has obtained a Core Trade certification, testifying to his skills. Based on what we’ve seen from many TWC2 cases we’ve helped, the market rate for skilled Bangladeshi workers like him is at least $900 – $1,000 a month in basic salary, often more.
After finishing an earlier job in June 2017 and returning to Bangladesh, he asked around some old contacts for new job openings. A fellow Bangladeshi whom we’ll call Khaleque (not his real name) said he knew of one. Sarowar had met Khaleque two or three years earlier in Singapore, but, like Sarowar, he had since returned to Bangladesh.
“[Khaleque] say the basic will be $28 to $30,” Sarowar told us of the opening offer. They seem to have finally agreed on $30 a day, which would be equivalent to about $780 a month in basic salary. It was lower than Sarowar had expected but he had a wife and child to feed and couldn’t afford to go long without a job.
On 29 July 2017, Sarowar received an email from Khaleque with the “In-principle approval for a Work Permit” (IPA) attached. It is shown below, with the relevant part magnified. This IPA states a basic monthly salary of $800, which was more or less what had been agreed as the salary for the job.
Sarowar printed it out and went to a district office of the Bangladeshi government’s Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET). At this office, the IPA was certainly checked and scanned (according to Sarowar). Clearly, the purpose of doing so would have been to create a record indicating that this citizen of the country had found a job outside the country.
BMET would thus have a copy of the document that Khaleque had given to Sarowar as “proof” of a job. If MOM were keen to investigate this case, they could work with BMET to obtain evidence.
An Emigration Card was then issued by BMET to Sarowar.
At the same time, Sarowar was asked to remit the “agent fee” to Khaleque’s business partner in Singapore, someone we will call Hamidul (not his real name). Sarowar sent 180,000 Bangladeshi taka through a “hundi” — an unofficial, parallel money-transfer operative. Hundis are regularly used by Bangladeshis to transfer money internationally. They are much trusted — we almost never hear of transfers going wrong — and charge rates way cheaper than banks. The hundi’s contact in Singapore paid the Singapore dollar equivalent (S$3,000) to Hamidul.
We don’t know much about Hamidul because Sarowar couldn’t tell us much about him. He is Bangladeshi, probably working here on a Work Permit or S Pass. Sarowar had his phone number and when TWC2 (later) dialled this number, he picked up the phone and spoke, albeit warily, with us.
But we’re running too far ahead of the story.
Back in Bangladesh, formalities completed and agent fee received, Khaleque bought an air ticket for Sarowar. The flight was scheduled for a Wednesday evening in August 2017. Khaleque accompanied Sarowar to Dhaka airport. Just as Sarowar was checking in, Khaleque said (as recalled by Sarowar), “Oh, I almost forgot. I must pass you the IPA, so that you can show it to Singapore immigration on arrival.”
Said Sarowar, “I already have the IPA letter. You sent me by email.”
“No, that one is only a copy,” explained Khaleque. “This one is the original. This is the one you must show immigration.”
Sarowar took the paper that Khaleque was handing to him and turned his attention back to checking in and going through the airport gates.
It was only while waiting for the flight at the air-side of Dhaka airport that he took a look at the document Khaleque gave him. Indeed, it was an IPA, very much like the earlier emailed version. But then Sarowar noticed, his heart skipping a beat, a key difference. We’ve circled it in red below:
However, it was too late. He had officially left Bangladesh on a one-way ticket to Singapore.
The plane touched down at Singapore’s Changi airport at 2am, Thursday morning. As earlier advised by Khaleque, Sarowar phoned Hamidul, who came to the airport at around 7am to pick him up.
Sarowar was taken to a scruffy hostel on Cuff Road. At the first opportunity, Sarowar asked Hamidul why there was a difference in the basic salary in the two versions of the IPA.
Hamidul said there was nothing to worry about. The boss would surely pay him $30 a day, i.e. something closer to $800 a month as stated in the first version of the IPA. “You work first, if boss like you, he pay $30.”
Hamidul also took Sarowar’s passport. “He say passport must have, to arrange medical check-up,” said Sarowar when we asked him why he handed this critical document to the agent.
On the following Sunday, Sarowar was transferred to another scruffy hostel not far away, on Hindoo Road. Here he met for the first time, his new work colleagues, who were also being housed there by the employer. The next day, he followed the group to the company’s workplace — a construction site building bungalow houses.
The boss was there. At around midday, Sarowar went up to the boss, and asked if he could have a word. “I say to boss, ‘My salary, now much you give [me]?'”
In a rather rough manner, the employer replied, “Twenty-two dollar.” This would be equivalent to a basic salary of $524 a month.
“I say, cannot so low,” continued Sarowar, recounting the conversation to us, “My experience nine years in Singapore. I have Core Trade. Cannot $22.”
The conversation continued for a bit more, but in the end…
“Boss not happy. He say, ‘OK, never mind. You go back.'”
‘Go back’ to a Bangladeshi worker like Sarowar means to go home to Bangladesh. The job would be gone; the sunk cost of the agent fee lost.
Sarowar stopped work immediately to mull over the matter, and came to TWC2 for a consultation the same evening.
What exactly happened? Who was involved in the fraud? We cannot be sure since no investigation was carried out by the proper authorities. We can however make educated guesses based on what we know of the recruitment process and our long experience in this field. But before we discuss the two likeliest possibilities, we should explain a bit about how IPAs are generated.
When an employer wishes to hire a foreign worker, the employer or his employment agent, makes an online application at MOM for a Work Permit. Various details about the prospective employee have to be entered into the system. Other details about the terms of employment, such as the basic salary, allowances and deductions have to be entered too.
The online application is processed by ministry officials and when approval is given, the employer (or his employment agent) will then be able to print a formal “In-principle Approval for Work Permit” — i.e. the IPA letter. A copy of the this has to be sent (by the employer or his agent) to the prospective employee so that he can come into Singapore.
But here’s the trick: even after approval is given, the employer or his agent can go online and amend the details in the application. Amendment is only disallowed after the employee has entered Singapore and had a Work Permit issued to him.
Here are the two likeliest possibilities as to what happened in Sarowar’s case:
The company originally created an IPA through MOM’s online system showing $800 as basic salary, and this version was sent to Sarowar in late July. After Sarowar had remitted his agent fee to Singapore, the application was amended to $500 basic salary. The printed version of this amended IPA was passed to Sarowar just as he was checking in for his flight from Dhaka.
In this scenario, the employer would have to be colluding with Hamidul and Khaleque, since only the employer could have had access to the online application system. Almost surely, Hamidul and Khaleque are not licenced employment agents in Singapore; they wouldn’t have had access to the system.
In the alternative scenario, the amendment did not take place through MOM’s online application system. From the beginning, the application was made stating a basic salary of $500 a month. After MOM’s approval, the IPA was printed out and then doctored offline to show a basic salary of $800. This doctored version was then shown to Sarowar to induce him to take the job and remit the fee to Singapore.
In such a situation, the employer might not have been involved. The doctoring could have been carried out by Hamidul and Khaleque without the employer knowing about it.
Either way, the end result was that Sarowar was cheated. The scam was achieved by flashing documents bearing MOM’s name and logo. But this does not seem to bother the ministry at all, going by the inert reaction that Sarowar got when he tried to lodge a complaint. It’s not even clear whether the officer he spoke to took down any note of the conversation.
This particular incident raises a more general question: How is any prospective worker, whether in Singapore or abroad, to check whether a document purported to be an IPA issued by MOM is genuine or not? There seems to be no practical way at all.
It would be the easiest thing in the world to have a portal in which a worker (still abroad) can key in his FIN number and the date of IPA application, to see online what the details on MOM’s computer are, He would thus be able to compare them with the printed copy given to him. The URL for this portal can be displayed on the IPA itself.
However, even if that were done, there is still another loophole that the ministry must close. Given the ease with which an employer (or his agent) can amend details of an IPA, any check produces an answer that is true only for that moment. A minute after a check is done, the employer could well be logging into the system and changing the terms of employment!
The current system designed by MOM is essentially an “honour system”. The onus is on the employer to seek genuine consent from the prospective employee for any change to the terms of employment and truthfully and promptly inform him too of any amendment to the online record. The trouble with such a system is that it fails to accommodate a world in which not every employer is honourable — otherwise known as “the real world”.
An honour system would not be so prone to failure if violations are rigorously dealt with. Any hint of abuse should be investigated vigorously and examples made of violators. Unfortunately, as Sarowar’s experience shows, MOM wants an honour system but does not take any interest in reported violations.
Consequently, it’s not hard to argue that the ministry bears responsibility for creating the conditions for such IPA scams to flourish.
Singapore’s Prevention of Human Trafficking Act, which closely mirrors the language of the UN’s Palermo Protocol, says in its Section 3:
3.—(1) Any person who recruits, transports, transfers, harbours or receives an individual (other than a child) by means of —
(a) the threat or use of force, or any other form of coercion;
(c) fraud or deception;
(d) the abuse of power;
(e) the abuse of the position of vulnerability of the individual; or
(f) the giving to, or the receipt by, another person having control over that individual of any money or other benefit to secure that other person’s consent,
for the purpose of the exploitation (whether in Singapore or elsewhere) of the individual shall be guilty of an offence.
(emphasis highlighted by TWC2)
The intended exploitation — an element needed to make the offence — is obvious: paying the man a lower rate than he agreed to so that the employer can make extra profit.
The penalty for a first offence is a fine of up to $100,000 and imprisonment of up to ten years. As many as six strokes of the cane can also be ordered by the judge. It is obviously seen as a very serious offence, but what use is the law if no one bothers to enforce it?
On a slightly tangential note, Sarowar’s report to MOM also touched on the fact that the employer used the services of illegal job brokers — Hamidul and Khaleque. There is a law in place — the Employment Agencies Act — which makes it an offence for unlicenced parties to perform activities akin to employment agents. It would have been very easy to make the case that this duo, or at least Hamidul who was right here in this country, committed an offence within Singapore jurisdiction. Hamidul received $3,000 for his services; he picked up Sarowar from the airport and housed him for the first few nights (like most employment agents would); and he even took Sarowar’s passport in order to arrange a medical check-up.
Furthermore, by using Hamidul’s services, the company could also be accused of abetting an offence under the same Act.
And yet, MOM did not take any interest in pursuing the matter.
MOM posted a note on Facebook in response to this article. See MOM’s note and our response to MOM here: MOM wrong to accuse us of ‘inaccurate’ and ‘untrue’ account.
TWC2 is an organization that is dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers when they are in difficulty. We are motivated by a sense of fairness and humanity, though our caseload often exceeds our