By Alex, based on an interview in November 2017

“Why are you still in Singapore?” I ask Sarkar Debabrata. He is showing me a Special Pass dated 19 January 2017 — ten months old — which allows him to remain in Singapore until his case at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is concluded. Yet, in his previous sentence, he said his case had been settled. The three months of owed salary has been paid up by the boss. And that was a while ago.

Then I notice something about his Foreigner Identification Number (FIN), and before he can reply to my first question, I make a guess: “Were you on an S-Pass while you were working for this company PBP Engineering Pte Ltd?”

Sarker says, “Yes. S-Pass.”

“Then why are you still without a job?”

The vast majority of migrant workers who come to TWC2 for assistance would have been on Work Permits. This is the category for foreign workers who have only basic skill qualifications, and whose monthly basic salary does not exceed $2,200. Those with mid-level technical skill certification and who have monthly basic salary of at least $2,200 come under S-Passes  — not to be confused with Special Passes.

Work Permits are employer-tied. When the job ends, or when the MOM case ends (if the worker has lodged a complaint at MOM), the worker generally has to be repatriated, and at the employer’s expense. Exceptions can be made, so it’s not a hard and fast rule. Nonetheless, the default and most common situation is that as soon as the case is concluded, the Special Pass expires and he has to go home.

Holders of S-Passes, however, have a month to look for new jobs without having to be repatriated. In fact, they are never ‘repatriated’, because their passage home is theirs to pay, not the employer’s.

Why still here?

Here’s the mystery: Sarkar Debabrata had a salary complaint. His salary for October, November and December 2016 had not been paid; earlier months too had been partially short. He lodged a complaint at MOM in early January 2017 (he cannot recall the date exactly), and was put on a Special Pass after the employer cancelled his S-Pass. However, as at the date of our interview, the case is over. He has received the amounts owed.

So, why hasn’t he found and moved over to a new job? Or, if he doesn’t want to continue working in Singapore, why hasn’t he gone home?

“Because MOM is still investigating,” he explains. He complained that “my boss took my money” for giving him the job.

Ah! There is a second case which is ongoing. It is an offence for anyone to demand or receive payment from foreign workers for giving them employment. Section 22A of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act makes this quite clear:

22A.—(1)  No person shall deduct from any salary payable to a foreign employee, or demand or receive, directly or indirectly and whether in Singapore or elsewhere, from a foreign employee any sum or other benefit —

(a) as consideration or as a condition for the employment of the foreign employee, whether by that person or any other person;

(b) as consideration or as a condition for the continued employment of the foreign employee, whether by that person or any other person; or

(c) as a financial guarantee related, in any way, to the employment of the foreign employee, whether by that person or any other person.

The law encompasses acts and receipts made outside Singapore, though in practice, it is very hard to get sufficient evidence to nail those cases. But when the offence is committed in Singapore, and there is some prospect of getting evidence, MOM takes a very serious view of it.

The problem here is that the complainant — the living, breathing human — is one item among the evidence. If MOM could, they’d lock Sarkar Debabrata in the evidence drawer so that he can be produced at will when he’s needed to testify in court against his former employer. Metaphorically, that Special Pass he’s showing me is the locked drawer. He is not allowed to leave Singapore.

Sarkar continues: “At the beginning [i.e. when he was being hired], boss took $500. I paid in cash. I also had to pay a supervisor — his nickname is Muhammud* — another $500, also in cash.”

[*Based on his pronunciation. He might have said ‘Mahmood’.]

According to Sarkar, the boss is a Tamil Singaporean, while Muhammud/Mahmood was a Bangladeshi worker.

However, the two payments of $500 each were not the end of it. Every month, the employer deducted over $600 from his salary, which was officially $2,500. Unfortunately (for the boss) there is a paper trail showing this deduction. Moreover, there is a witness to the first payment of $500 to the boss, says Sarkar. That witness is a Bangladeshi guy named Abu, who used to work in the same company, but is now with a different employer.

“Abu gave a statement to MOM,” Sarkar confirms. “He is supporting my case.”

Muhammud has apparently fled home to Bangladesh, and may be beyond the reach of the law.

Just waiting

So much for the history. “What stage has the investigation reached?” I ask Sarkar. “When is the case going to court?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “I ask MOM many times, but they cannot tell me.”

And he’s going to be kept here in Singapore at their pleasure for as long as they wish. No thought is given to how to provide him with housing and sustenance. He has to pay for everything himself.

But unlike those who were previously on Work Permits, as an S-Pass holder, Sarkar has the right to look for a new job.

“I tried many times,” he says. He speaks confidently in English in complete sentences unlike most foreign workers. “But employers don’t like to employ anyone with Special Pass. They see that we have complained to MOM about something, and they don’t like it.”

“So now, I am just waiting. I don’t know for what.”

Issues surfaced

What are the issues surfaced by this case?

While it is good that MOM is investigating and will probably be prosecuting the employer for kickbacks, there is absolutely no provision for supporting the witness that the ministry insists on retaining in Singapore. MOM expects to use people for its own ends without giving a thought to the price that those persons have to pay.

Technically, Sarkar should not be unemployed. He should have found and be working at a new job by now. In practice, however, he is a victim of a very poorly-designed system of work migration. Giving him the right, on paper, to look for a new job is meaningless if employers have no incentive to offer him a job. In fact, employers see a disincentive (whether real or imagined), especially when they have virtually complete freedom to hire fresh new faces from Bangladesh, India, China, Philippines and other large-population countries. New workers are cheaper. They are meeker too, a trait much preferred by bosses. This open-door policy that the Singapore government maintains is the reason why workers like Sarkar, held in Singapore against his will, cannot support themselves. The policy defeats their paper rights.

It also means that the skill and experience he has — and he has worked close to ten years in the construction industry here — is lost to our economy. Instead, there is a bumbling new guy in his place somewhere in this country and who probably can’t even communicate in English with Singaporeans and workers of other nationalities the way Sarkar can.

Bad policy design is the story here.