By Alston Ng based on an interview in June 2018

According to a Bloomberg article (footnote 1) dated to Jan 2017, Singaporeans face the shortest unemployment period in the world, spending a median duration of merely two months before finding new jobs. No doubt, such a short transition period indicates market resilience and points to the efficacy of a robust national infrastructure in supporting re-employment. But where an average Singaporean job-seeker may easily access job-search portals and qualify for government-run career-matching services, Rahman Safiar, a Bangladeshi worker who began his job search earlier in March this year, is harrowingly deprived of such assistance and left to go from door to door in search of a willing employer.

Safiar’s earlier problems with the bureaucracy is recounted in the previous article Re attempts at salary reduction, MOM ties itself in knots. After resolving a salary dispute with his former employer, he was offered an opportunity to find a new job in Singapore. However, as we speak (early June), the walls are already closing in on Safiar — he must secure a new job soon, or he faces repatriation to Bangladesh on 13 June.

Initially, he managed to find a willing employer at a landscaping firm, and though his salary would be slashed by some $800, it was nonetheless a job he accepted since he needed the money. But just as things were starting to fall into place, he was informed on 6 June that his the work permit application was rejected by MOM. It is not clear why.

The countdown has begun — in effect, Safiar has only six days left to find a new employer, submit a new application, and have it approved to remain in Singapore. As he stared down an almost certain fate of repatriation, Safiar earnestly appealed to me that his family in Bangladesh is depending on his financial contributions. He highlighted the financial constraints his family of eight faces and explained with a mix of pride and worry, “New baby boy — one month.”

Repatriation threatens to spell financial ruin for Safiar and his family. Having worked four different jobs in Singapore, Safiar is keenly sensitive to the pains of paying steep agent fees to secure employment. Each time he returned to Bangladesh while between jobs, his debt grew by the thousands. In fact, most migrant workers pay agent fees that range between S$3,000 and S$15,000 (footnote 2), effectively rendering them hostages to crippling indebtedness.

What can Rahman Safiur, a man of a foreign tongue, a man with neither financial nor technological wherewithal, do to find a job? Safiar protested that his application was already a “success”, evidently confused by the conflicting messages he has received. What he failed to realise, however, was that his job transfer application, which was made on his behalf by the prospective employer, was only successfully submitted for MOM’s approval.

Evidently, Safiar was caught unawares of the exact nature of employment transfer procedures. When quizzed about why his application was rejected, Safiar could only say, “No reason reject.” Either he could not fathom why his application was rejected, or he simply wasn’t given one. Even more cryptic than his answer, however, was MOM’s: “The application was not successful due to the following reason(s): The application was unable to meet one or more of the criteria for this sector.”

In the meantime, TWC2 will seek to identify the exact reason(s) behind Safiar’s unsuccessful application. But one must question how a system designed to incentivise job transfers has instead left a worker like Safiar misinformed and confused about what he should do. Quite obviously, MOM’s failure to provide a concrete explanation for rejecting Safiar’s application exemplifies a kind of institutional opacity that inadvertently undermines the social purpose of the job transfer process.

To be sure, Safiar represents an exception to the norm. Alex Au, a member of the TWC2 Executive Committee, said, “While we have seen cases where men come to us saying that their application for job transfer was rejected by MOM for reasons unknown, I can’t say that it is that frequent. It is not that frequent not because approval is so common — in fact we don’t know what the approval rate is — but because the most common scenario is that in which they can’t even find a transfer job within the short window of time that they are given. Let alone submit an application and get rejected.”

The government’s efforts to boost the quality of foreign manpower, however well-meant, must pay attention to how its policies translate into practice. The focus on retaining skills and experience among foreign workers falls short of its goals when workers like Safiar are left to their own devices to manoeuvre the bureaucratic demands involved in job transfers. An obvious remedy that TWC2 has long maintained (footnote 3) is to establish an online job-matching portal that enables ‘in-betweeners’ like Safiar to identify job vacancies quickly and helps firms attract experienced workers.

Above all, Singapore must recognise that the interests of foreign workers are not at odds with those of the government. It is only with increased accessibility to information, robust legal protections for labour rights, and greater transparency at all levels of government and enterprise that Singapore may see a real and appreciable growth in productivity. Workers get more productive when there is security. “It doesn’t have to be job security,” says Alex Au, “for that might be too ‘socialistic’ for our government, but career security: meaning that if you lose one job, you can fairly easily find another.”

For a nation that prides itself on having a world-class service industry, surely we can do more than give non-answers like “The application was unable to meet one or more of the criteria for this sector.”

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