Isaac (L) and Anowar (R)

By Isaac Ong, based on an interview in November 2017

Anowar arrived in Singapore for his current job with Akilas Enterprise in late 2016, working for several months without issues. In June this year, however, life changed drastically. He tells us that he was not called to work, and ended up whiling away his time at his company’s rented room in Geylang without work for days. He contacted his supervisor, who simply instructed him to sit tight and wait. As days turned into weeks, the situation continued, with Anowar living on the little money he had saved from the previous year of work. He contacted his supervisor, desperation mounting, but was not given any response.

Left with no work and no options

One day, he finally got hold of his supervisor in person, and questioned him about when he could resume work and salvage his dwindling finances. Shockingly, the ‘solution’ he was offered was: “If you can find job outside, you go take lah.”

Anowar understood what that meant: He was being asked to be a ‘released worker’ working illegally away from the official employer. It didn’t strike Anowar as an appropriate response. In any case, an exasperated Anowar complains, “I how to find job?”

Still left in the lurch after weeks of waiting, Anowar was to be confronted with an even bigger bombshell. Having not heard from his boss for some time, Anowar checked his Work Permit status over the Hari Raya holiday. To his shock, he learnt that it had been cancelled just a few days prior. He immediately reported this to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), who opened a salary investigation for him.

MOM also informed him that his boss had lodged a police report that he had been missing. Anowar denies this. He says he had been at the company’s lodgings the whole time.

This is only the start of his long journey in seeking compensation. A mediation session conducted by the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) failed, and he now has to fight his case in the Emloyment Claims Tribunal, where the evidentiary requirements for him to prove the amount he was owed will be much higher. Even with the assistance of his MOM officer, it will be a long, uphill battle. Currently, his financial state is dire, with him approaching TWC2 for assistance to pay for a $30 administrative court attendance fee, and even to top up his EZ-Link farecard so that he can use public transport to go to court.

Vibrant Transfer Market Needed

While it perhaps could be nothing more than an offhand comment, his supervisor’s suggestion to look for a job elsewhere brings up worrying questions. At worst, his supervisor could have been making a patently illegal proposal for Anowar to work for a company different from the one listed on his Work Permit. We can only speculate as to why he would say this. Was his supervisor looking to take a cut of the pay Anowar could possibly get from a new job – in spite of the fact that this is a punishable breach of employment law?

At best, even if his comment is not to be taken seriously, Anowar’s response still highlights a pressing issue in the job market for migrant workers. For most Bangladeshi workers, the only route to a job in Singapore is through an intermediary in Bangladesh. When already in Singapore, it is an immense challenge for them to find a company or agent who can procure a job for them. Anowar was acutely aware of this from the start of his salary woes, and is even more adversely affected now as his current employment situation persists.

Nurturing a more vibrant market for worker transfers within Singapore can reduce the number of cases like Anowar’s. Mechanisms like the FCWDS, which matches workers with expiring permits with companies looking for new men, or policy shifts like the more liberal distribution of letters allowing a Change of Employer (COE) to workers undergoing salary claims, do signify a positive change in the policy landscape. The takeup rate, however, remains low as other articles and study reports by TWC2 have described.

But if there were an active transfer-job market, both employers and employees will benefit.

When projects have dried up, employees like Anowar could ask their employers to agree to them (legitimately) looking for new jobs instead of waiting around with fruitlessly. They would have reasonable confidence that new jobs would be available, and they could transition to them without leaving the country. This would be far better than the current practice of employers involuntarily terminating the jobs of unneeded workers and repatriating them. Repatriated workers would have to use agents to get new jobs in Singapore, paying eye-watering sums to do so.

Employers like Akilas Enterprise (Anowar’s employer) would not need to keep holding on to idled staff when facing a shortage of projects. One can understand why they currently do that: In the event that a new contract comes around, manpower must be quickly found again. With an active transfer-job market, companies can easily recruit from there if necessary.

Hopefully, if such changes to the Singapore job market are made, Anowar’s ringing question, “I how to find job?”, will be asked no longer.