“As of Oct 2017,” said Lim Swee Say, Minister for Manpower, in a written answer to a parliamentary question, “400 [Work Permit holders have] changed employers after completing their work permit terms.” He gave this reply on 6 November 2017. To assess the significance of this number, it is necessary to provide some background.

Over the years, TWC2’s advocacy has made considerable difference in the treatment of migrant workers in Singapore, though the slowness of policy change may sometimes make it look like we are completely ineffectual. It takes years of hammering home a point before the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) begins to reconsider a policy and tweak it in a direction that we have argued for.

Job mobility is one such area. For at least a decade, TWC2 has been saying that tying foreign workers’ permits to a specific employer, and requiring them to be repatriated when the employer no longer wants them, is to render such workers vulnerable to abuse. No worker wants to lose his job prematurely. The family back home depends on it. Conscious of his power, the employer is tempted to be exploitative.

We argued that migrant workers should be able to change jobs when they wish to. They should not face involuntary repatriation when they resign or when their work passes are cancelled. Giving them the right to seek new jobs rebalances the bargaining power between employer and employee and lessens the temptation to be an abusive boss. At a macro level, it supports Singapore’s push for productivity improvement when experienced workers stay on within our economy even if their existing employers can’t continue to employ them, or if employer and employee are in conflict for some reason.

Glacial movement

In 2015 and 2016, MOM began to move a little bit in the direction we urged. Construction workers who are nearing the end of their work permit term were allowed to look for new jobs without first going home.  Separately, we have noticed that Work Permit holders who have lost their jobs prematurely because of salary and other abuses by their employers are commonly granted permission by MOM to seek new jobs, again without first going home.

However, the details of these policies appear to TWC2 to fall well short of what’s needed to be effective. In particular, the time window given to workers to find new jobs is ridiculously short: Just 20 days in the case of end-of-permit workers, and just 14 days* in the case of salary-unpaid workers. Even well qualified Singapore citizens will be hard-pressed to land new jobs in such time-frames.

[*often extendable on request to 28 days]

The other problem that is obvious to everyone, except maybe the ministry, is that employers are typically unwilling to hire from the local pool of unemployed foreign workers. They much prefer to hire directly through shadowy agents within the source countries. There are many reasons for this, not least because it is so much easier to profit from a cut of the fees extracted from potential workers in the source countries.


A news story on Channel NewsAsia (27 July 2016) is worth mentioning here since it reinforces what we’re saying above. Behind the gaudy (and best ignored) headline about launching an app to help improve productivity, it spoke of a database of job openings (“Foreign Construction Workers Directory System”, or FCWDS) maintained by the Singapore Contractors Association. A construction worker with an expiring work pass need “only” pay $26 to sign up and another $160 in fees if successfully matched to a new employer.

Deeper into the story, it gets almost comedic, and we read that:

But the database, which was launched about a year ago and cost more than S$200,000 to develop, only has a user base of 6,174 workers. This is barely 2 per cent of the pool of more than 300,000 workers in Singapore. There are currently 65 employers on the database, with 111 successful matches to date.

Mr Loo’s* firm, Straits Construction, accounts for nearly a quarter of the successful matches. He acknowledges there is scope to grow the numbers, and get more players, particularly smaller contractors on board.

— Channel NewsAsia, 27 July 2016, Raising construction sector productivity – with an app. Link

[*Kenneth Loo is the president of the Singapore Contractors Association.]

A quick calculation will reveal that 111 successful matches out of an already miniscule database of 6,174 workers represents a 2% success rate.

There is another useful morsel of information in the article.

One in three foreign construction workers leave Singapore every two years when their work permits expire.

Another quick calculation tells us this: If one in three foreign construction workers leaves every two years, then each year about one in six of them are repatriated. Given that there are over 300,000 Work Permit holders in the construction sector, that’s about 50,000 of them going home annually. These figures will help us make sense of what follows below.

The magnificent four hundred

As suggested by the foregoing, the tweaks made by MOM in 2015 and 2016 seemed to us to be grossly insufficient. To be fair, we’d like MOM to reveal the numbers involved before we make a definitive assessment.

At the parliamentary sitting of 6 November 2017, People’s Action Party member of parliament Louis Ng put in a question for written answer. He asked:

To ask the Minister for Manpower since the transfer policy was implemented for construction and process workers, (a) how many work permit holders have been granted a transfer of employer with the employer’s agreement and without the employer’s agreement respectively; and (b) whether the Ministry will consider extending the scheme to work permit holders in other sectors.

The minister’s reply can be seen from MOM’s website. It said, and we quote in full:

1. Since 2005, we allow work permit holders (WPHs) in the construction sector to change employers if their current employers agree. Since 2015, we also allow all construction sector WPHs to change employers at the end of their work permit term, if they are not able to come to a mutual agreement on the renewal of their work permits. Since June this year, we also allow WPHs in the process sector the same flexibilities. In addition, WPHs who have valid claims against their employers have been allowed to find another employer. The transfer policy improves productivity as employers benefit from hiring WPHs with work experience in Singapore. Employers also save on repatriation, search and hiring costs, as the WPHs do not have to leave Singapore.

2. As of Oct 2017, approximately 128,000 WPHs changed employers before the end of their work permit terms with their employers’ consent. Another 400 WPHs changed employers after completing their work permit terms.

3. MOM is reviewing whether the transfer policy can be extended progressively to other sectors at an appropriate time, taking into account the impact on both businesses and workers.

Can you make sense of the numbers?

The “400” may be easier to parse. The minister seemed to be referring to construction workers — because the transfer-at-end-of-permit scheme only applies to them. He said the number was “as of October 2017”. He did not say clearly from when to when, but perhaps we can assume that he was referring to the start of the scheme in 2015 till October 2017. But in which month did it start in 2015? Not articulated.

Regardless of this fuzziness, the 400 workers who “changed employers after completing their work permit terms” appear magnificent when we consider that every year 50,000 are repatriated. Over two years (assuming we’re referring to the period Oct 2015 – Oct 2017) that would be 100,000 repatriated. 400 men retained in Singapore is less than one percent of this number. What heroes they are!

But bear in mind always that the boundaries of his numbers were left unclear and thus our interpretation can only be tentative.

The number “128,000” may be breathtaking by comparison. This was the number he gave for Work Permit holders who “changed employers before the end of their work permit terms with their employers’ consent.” However, before we praise employers for their magnanimity in allowing their employees to quit and work for competitors, we need to interrogate this statistic. Was he referring to the same period 2015 – Oct 2017? Or was he referring to the period since 2005, when the tweak was made to allow workers to change jobs with employers’ permission? Moreover, was he referring only to construction workers, or all sectors? It is not clear at all.

We can’t draw any meaning from sentences that are so opaque.

What we can broadly say is that the latest tweak — allowing construction workers whose permits are expiring to look for new jobs — is making little difference. It’s no surprise to us. Maintaining an open door policy for new hires from abroad contradicts this new scheme, since the job marketplace stays firmly abroad. Until we do something about the open-door policy, the unemployed and soon-to-be unemployed foreign construction workers here will have no real opportunity to find new jobs.

What we can also broadly say is that the ministry gets an F for public communication. The imprecision of the numbers provided is of a kind that secondary school students get scolded by their teachers for. Was it deliberate, and meant to obscure? Or is it a symptom of disarray within the ministry, such that they can’t even answer a parliamentary question with clarity?