For several months in late 2017 and early 2018, we puzzled over a statement by the then-Minister for Manpower Lim Swee Say that in the first half of 2017, only about 600 of foreign workers with salary claims indicated that they wished to find new employment (see footnote 1). We felt that 600 was an unusually low figure since from previous parliamentary reports, we know that the ministry receives about 7,000 salary claims a year, with the majority of such cases filed by foreign workers.

The minister also said in the same statement that “All foreign workers with valid salary claims are allowed to change employers”. From TWC2’s experience helping workers with salary claims, we see that virtually all of them are eager to find new employment as soon as possible.  Their families are depending on them. So why did the ministry report only 600 interested in looking for new employment?

This figure was repeated in a Straits Times report dated 26 November 2017. (Link). It reported:

In April this year, the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) was set up to strengthen dispute resolution mechanisms here.

“In the first six months of operations, we received 2,500 salary claims from foreign workers. Of the claims that have concluded mediation, about 90 per cent recovered their unpaid salaries in full,” said Mr Lim [Swee Say].

“All foreign workers with valid salary claims are also allowed to change employers. In the first six months of 2017, about 600 of such foreign workers indicated that they wished to change employers and of these, about half found new jobs in Singapore,” he added.

There is not much new information in the newspaper report except that we now have a figure for the number of salary claims filed by foreign workers: 2,500 over a six-month period. This figure is roughly what we expected to see going by the trend from previous years, but it does highlight how low the “600” figure was.

It should be noted that just because a worker is allowed to look for a new job locally does not mean he would be successful in landing one. The minister himself said that “about half found new jobs.” That would be 300, out of 2,500 workers who had filed salary claims. That’s 12% out of 2,500.

This percentage is remarkably close to what TWC2 volunteer Isaac Ong found when he interviewed 48 workers in the second half of 2017. These 48 men had salary claims and were also out looking for new jobs.  Eventually, only 5 of them found new employment: a 10% success rate.

Isaac’s findings are included in the article Victims of unpaid salaries have hard time getting transfer jobs (link).

What does “indicated that they wished to change employers” mean?

It seemed to us that the minister was painting an overly bright picture saying half found new jobs when our on-the-ground observations were radically different. Much obviously must depend on what the minister meant when he said that only 600 indicated that they wished to change employers.

Then almost at the end of 2017, one worker told us something that might be key to understanding the issue. This worker had a salary claim which was close to resolution. He explained to TWC2 that his Ministry of Manpower (MOM) case officer had verbally agreed to him going out to look for a new job.

Opening sentence of 2nd paragraph says “not allowed to engage in any form of employment. Click to enlarge”

For the time being, he was still on an MOM pink Special Pass (an example is imaged at left), which MOM could renew as often as needed. As soon as his salary case ended however, MOM would issue him with a “Form 18” Special Pass which was only good for repatriation. A Form 18 Special Pass was only valid for 14 days, and at most renewable just once (total 28 days). According to the worker, the MOM officer told him that he could issue a “paper” (a variant of the Form 18 Special Pass perhaps?) allowing him to stick around for the same 14 days to look for a new job. But it too could not be renewed more than once.

The worker told TWC2 that his MOM officer then explained to him that he (the officer) was reluctant to issue him with this “paper” immediately given its inflexible validity period. The officer preferred to help the worker by keeping him on a pink Special Pass for as long as possible even though he was unofficially informed that he was free to look for work. The MOM officer was perhaps aware that it was unrealistic for a worker to find a new job within a 14-day window, and was trying his best to be helpful.

As recounted by the worker, “MOM officer, he talking to me: ‘I don’t give you transfer paper yet. You find job first. When you 100% sure can find job and new employer ready to apply work permit, then I issue the pass. That way, everything can smoothly do in 14 days.’

“So I now only have [pink] Special Pass,” the worker emphasized, “but officer say I can look for job.”

Of course, we cannot know for sure if the worker understood his MOM officer fully or if his account of the process was accurate, but it certainly made a lot more sense than anything else that had come before. It connected all the dots. All workers with salary claims were informed that they could look for new jobs, but not all were ever given a transfer-privilege letter. If the method applied by this MOM officer was commonly practised in the ministry, then only those who managed to find a serious employer with a job firmly lined up would be given the formal letter.

The penny dropped. When Lim Swee Say said only 600 out of 2,500 indicated that they wished to change employers, might he have been basing his figure on how many formal transfer-privilege letters were issued? If so, it would make a poor basis, as our worker’s actual account shows. This worker himself had not been issued such a letter, but clearly wished to look for a new job. And was doing so with his MOM officer’s blessing.

If that’s what Lim’s “600” figure was based on, and only “about half found new jobs”, it would mean that a truer reading of the situation would be that there were 300 successes out of 2,500 men formally and informally looking for new jobs: 12%.

Changing situation

Click to enlarge

All that may well be history by now, for by mid-2018, we began to see a new letter issued by TADM — imaged at right. This letter runs in parallel with the pink Special Pass. It says that the holder of the letter, “while pending salary arrears case” is allowed “to look for employment while remaining in Singapore on a special pass.”

For some strange bureaucratic reason the period given is fixed at two weeks, which even MOM officers know is far too short for a successful job search.

The difference this time is that the letter can be renewed, or a new letter issued. Unlike a Special Pass which is governed by legislation there is actually no hard and fast requirement as to expiry for such a letter. We’ve seen a worker who had one (and its renewed versions) for over two months.

Having this letter running in parallel with the Special Pass is definitely an improvement over the 2017 situation. But why fix the period at two weeks when the man’s salary case may continue for months? We find it somewhat amusing that even when the ministry realises the absurdity of a process (as in that which prevailed in 2017) and creates a better one, old habits die hard.

We spoke too soon

Literally a day after we penned this essay, including the sentence above with the words “a better one”, a worker gave us a completely different view. Still pursuing his salary claim and brandishing his copy of the TADM transfer-privilege letter, he told TWC2 volunteers, “This letter, worse.” He had been trying to get a new job for a few weeks, but eventually realised, “When employers see this letter, they definitely don’t want to give job.”

“They see I make salary claim at MOM, that’s why they don’t want me.”

As TWC2 has argued for years, employers have no incentive to hire locally-unemployed foreign workers so long as MOM keeps wide open the door to hiring meek new workers from abroad. No amount of euphemistic bureaucratese — “about half found new jobs” — can hide an ineffective policy and high failure rate.


At the 11 September 2017 sitting of Parliament, then-Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say said: “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.”