By Alston Ng, based on interviews in June 2018

About a month ago when Rifat (not his real name) showed up at TWC2, he was evidently distressed by the prospect of repatriation. Having resolved a salary dispute with his former employer, Rifat was left to his own devices as he embarked on a so-far unsuccessful plan to find work in Singapore. For weeks, he walked from door to door to look for a willing employer. “Jalan jalan”, as he describes it, proved a fruitless and disheartening strategy — time after time, he found the door shut against him.

“I go Wen Builders … Lian Beng… many many,” Rifat explains.

It is hardly news that workers face an uphill battle while looking for new jobs. Rifat’s experience highlights the gap between the right (see footnote) to transfer jobs and the ability to do so. Despite the opportunity to seek a new employer, Rifat’s status as a Special Pass holder raises red flags to employers. The Special Pass marks him out as a ‘subversive’ — someone who took his former employer to task when the latter failed to pay salaries.

Two other workers, Subra and Thiru (not their real names) speak of similar experiences. After resolving their salary dispute with their former employer, the duo has had no luck at finding new jobs. According to Subra, employers “see us, they don’t like – they say, ‘No job.’” As the reality of their unemployability dawned, they were approached by another foreign worker who offered to help them find a job at a fee of $3,000 each.

Eagerly I ply them for more information, but Subra and Thiru then turn tight-lipped, insisting that nothing really happened. My sense is that they are restraining themselves because they know the offer was illegal.

They change the course of the conversation. Even though I am interested in the experiences of looking for new jobs, they don’t seem to want to dwell on it. They may think it is unbecoming of them to elicit sympathy with sob stories. Instead, they each deliver an elevator pitch as though they were at a job interview. “2009, Jurong Island… then, Jurong Engineering, very good company, no problem (as a) signalman. Then lifting supervisor,” Thiru enumerates. Not one to be outdone, Subra chimes in to describe his work experience in supervising work safety, “No accidents, no problem,” under his watch, he says. By his account, his eagle-eyed superintendence was the only bulwark against chaos and disaster.

They are no strangers to the work TWC2 does, given that their salary dispute lasted for several months. That they exploit every opportunity to market themselves demonstrates their perceptiveness and mental agility. It is not for their lack of understanding that they seek my help in finding them jobs — it is desperation.

As they badger me to pledge myself to their cause, Subra and Thiru elaborate that they plan to contact the Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC) for assistance in job-searching. Regrettably, their hopes appear largely misplaced — based on what I could gather about MWC from its website and Google FAQ page, the organisation does not provide formal assistance in that area.

In case I misunderstood, I tried to get to reach MWC over this, but they declined to comment.

For his part, Rifat has been badgering a caseworker at HOME (Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics) for help in looking for a new job. “I ka-chiow [disturb or pester] him la, ask and ask, ‘help la bro…’”

Like TWC2, HOME is not an employment agency either. Neither organisation is in any position to provide job leads. But the fact that migrant workers like Rifat, Subra and Thiru have to “ka-chiow” social workers and volunteers, for want of an alternative, suggests that there is an absence of a functioning transfer market.

Yet, an efficient transfer market is an important part of Singapore’s aim to retain skills and experience.

Until a job-matching platform is made available to transfer workers, the ‘right’ to a transfer will most likely remain a false promise. Many may fail to find jobs in the limited time given to them, others may succumb to predatory practices by unlicensed agents. In the interest of improving productivity, Singapore needs to retain workers with skills and experience, but as the actual experiences of workers like Rifat, Subra and Thiru demonstrate, we have a long way to go.

Since these men are still looking for jobs, TWC2 decided it would not be prudent to use their real names.

Strictly speaking, no foreign worker yet has any right to job mobility, but there are established practices. Of longer standing is the provision that with the consent of the existing employer, the foreign worker may look for a new job. Having to obtain the employer’s consent clearly makes this substantially less than a right.

Of more recent vintage is the standard protocol adopted by the Ministry of Manpower wherein any worker with a valid salary claim would generally be given the option of looking for a new job without first having to go home. This is called the Change of Employer (COE) option. On 6 November 2017, Minister for Manpower Lim Swee Say enunciated this in answer to a parliamentary question, by saying, inter alia, “In addition, [Work Permit holders] who have valid claims against their employers have been allowed to find another employer.” While TWC2 has observed that this option is now routinely granted, it remains discretionary. MOM officers have to give a specific go-ahead before any worker can look for a new job — so once again, it is not quite a right.

Since 2016, Work Permit Holders in the construction industry have also been allowed to look for new jobs locally if, on expiry of their Work Permits, their existing employers have chosen not to renew them. The workers have 40 days prior to the expiry date to find new jobs, which must be in the construction sector. Recent pronouncements by MOM indicate that this option to look for new jobs after expiry may be gradually extended to workers in other sectors.