One of the more encouraging things that Transient Workers Count Too has noticed in the past few years is that now, nearly all victims of unpaid salary are given a chance by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to look for new jobs in Singapore without first having to return home.

The significance of the above may be hard to see at first sight, but it can make a huge financial difference to the worker. Once he has been sent home, to land a new Singapore job requires him to go through unregulated agents in his country. These agents demand thousands of dollars in fees.

On the other hand, if a worker is able to land a new job in Singapore without going home, he can potentially avoid this cost. Even if he goes through an agent in Singapore, our Employment Agencies Act caps the maximum that can charged for job placement services at one month’s basic salary for each year of contract, subject to a maximum of two months’ salary. For low-income jobs, basic salaries are often in the hundreds of dollars.

Low success rate

“Given a chance to look for new jobs in Singapore” however does not mean that workers are successful at that. One of the most striking observations that we at TWC2 and HOME (a fellow NGO: Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics) have made over the past year is that workers report a very low rate of success.

We asked one of our volunteers, Isaac Ong, to conduct a qualitative study of this problem. Through the second half of 2017, he, and other volunteers from HOME interviewed 48 workers with valid salary claims and who had been given the “Change of Employer” (COE) option by MOM. We wanted a better picture of the difficulties workers face.

Out of these 48 workers, only five ultimately found new jobs. Bearing in mind that it is a small sample — and that the study was never intended as a quantitative one — it still looks like a very poor rate of success.

From the interview reports, Isaac’s top four observations are:

1. Generally, workers say they have to look for new employers through their own avenues. MOM provides them no specific recommendations as to whom to approach, or what to do. (TWC2 comment: Considering that there are no internet job portals or job vacancy classified ads for the kinds of work they do, the absence of organised avenues or aggregated listings is a major hurdle.)

2. The most common reason given for an unsuccessful COE is an inability to find any employer with available jobs. Mostly, the workers are told by employers or agents whom they have approached that there is no vacancy. Whether that reply is even factually true is doubtful, because at least three workers were explicitly told by companies they approached that they did not wish to hire men on COE. Two of these three workers added that the employers remarked that they held negative perceptions of men on COE. (TWC2 comment: This perception may be because these workers have complained about their previous employers to MOM, a track record that makes them unattractive to new employers).

3. At least four workers voiced out reluctance to approach agents at all, displaying a perception that agents would  charge high transfer fees.

4. At least ten workers were asked to pay some sort of transfer or recruitment fee by various parties. Of the unsuccessful applicants,

  • Five men were asked by companies for “transfer fees” in excess of $1,000.
  • Three men were asked for sums between $500-1200 by friends or relatives whom they approached for leads, with the understanding that more would have to be paid if a lead resulted in a new job.
  • One S-Pass holder reported that a company he approached indicated to him fees ranging between $6,000 to $8,000 — it is not clear whether the company was speaking generally, or whether this was an oblique way of quoting a price to him.
  • One interviewee was asked by an agent for $1,800 in fees.
  • One interviewee was asked by an agent for something in the region of $3,000.

5. Of the five men who were successful in getting new jobs without first going home, two reported that they did not have to pay any “fees”. One reported that he had to pay $1,000, while another reported $4,800. The fifth man was uncontactable after he landed a new job, so we do not know if he too had to pay for the job.

With the caveat again that the sample size is small, Isaac tried to see if there were any predictive factors for success. He looked at educational qualifications, technical training qualifications, age, and years of working experience in Singapore. None correlated with success. It appears that success or failure is mostly a matter of luck and willingness to pay.

There were some interesting statements or experiences by workers worth recording here:

Two of the successful cases landed their jobs only on the second attempt. In each case, they found a willing employer, only to have the work permit application rejected by MOM, reasons unknown. In one of the two cases, the man found another job and this time the application was approved. In the other case, HOME made an appeal to MOM and the original application was eventually approved. This shows how stressful the process can be for workers.

One worker reported that he had approached an employer who appeared interested in hiring him, but in order to process the application, the company directed him to an agent whom he (the worker) knew to be a “bad” agent. The worker didn’t fully explain what he meant by “bad” but the context seemed to be that this agent, in the worker’s view, would be asking him for money. The worker did not pursue this avenue.

One man reported that he thought he had an interested employer, but soon after discovered that the company was closing down.

Overall, it is striking how prevalent it remains for Singapore employers and Singapore-based job agents to ask workers to pay for their jobs, even though it is against the law. Especially for those workers who have not recovered all their salary arrears (see separate story One quarter of Labour Court salary orders unpaid, 24 Feb 2017), where are they to find the money to pay such fees?

Ministry does not track its policy outcomes

At the 11 September 2017 sitting of Parliament, Nominated Member of Parliament Kok Heng Leun asked the Minister for Manpower the following question:

In the first six months of 2017, how many work permit holders (excluding foreign domestic helpers) have been granted the option of ‘change of employer’ by the Ministry and, of these, how many have found new jobs with new work permits issued without first going home.

Mr Lim Swee Say: All foreign workers with valid salary claims are allowed to change employers. In the first six months of 2017, about 600 of such foreign workers indicated that they wished to change employers. Of these, about half found new jobs in Singapore. MOM does not track if the workers went home in between jobs.

In effect, the minister did not have an answer to the question. Since he said that his ministry does not track if workers went home between jobs, his figure of “about half found new jobs in Singapore” may well include those who returned home, then paid agents all over again to get new jobs.


Without tracking, MOM may be completely unaware how their policy is being defeated by greedy employers and intermediaries. The aim of the policy can be read from another parliamentary reply given by Minister Lim (to a different parliamentary question) on 6 November 2017. In that reply, he explained that Work Permit holders (WPH)

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.

That may be the hope, but our study finds that it is not the reality.

TWC2 recommends that MOM urgently sets up a monitoring system to keep track of the numbers. However, monitoring alone is not enough. Two additional measures will be needed:

1. a proactive effort, including a whistle-blower protection arrangement, to ferret out employers and agents who ask workers to pay for jobs;

2. disincentives for importing fresh new workers from abroad when unemployed, experienced foreign workers are right here in Singapore looking desperately for employment.