By Ada Cheong, based on an interview in September 2018

Miah Younose takes his arm off the table and leans back into his chair, laughing to make light of his predicament. Unpaid for four months and bearing the sunken cost of $4,800 in agent fees, he is desperate to remain in Singapore to find new employment – even if that means paying a “somebody” another $3,000 to secure a job transfer.

We are at Transient Workers Count Too’s free meals program, the Cuff Road Project, on a narrow street in Little India. While walking down the road to get here, I was the only East Asian face in the area, amidst Bengali shopkeepers and sex workers who peered back at me from behind grated doors. Why would Younose want to remain in a place that has cheated him, and allocated him the space and role of a poor man?

“Singapore long time coming, [still] no money” — Younose has found periods of employment in Singapore which add up to five years. Yet, money is still hard to come by.

Arriving on 29 March 2018 with an IPA (In-Principle Approval) letter, Younose was already down by $4,800 — the exorbitant fee demanded by a fixer who arranged the job for him. This fixer was a fellow Bangladeshi working in Singapore.While still in Bangladesh, Younose had transferred the first $1,500 to the fixer’s bank account. The next $3,300, he paid in cash with his brother’s help after reaching Singapore.

Such fees are illegal according to Singapore’s laws. The application fees for IPAs are to be paid by employers and licensed employment agencies; the latter are allowed to collect no more than one month of a worker’s fixed-monthly salary for each year of service, capped at two months’ salary. In Younose’s case, the fixer was almost certainly not a licensed employment agent, since he was himself a foreign worker here. It wouldn’t have been legal to charge the permitted fees let alone the hefty amount of $4,800. Yet, the private and undocumented nature of this “hand-hand” transaction would later mean that Younose cannot recover this amount.

Younose tells me he raised this matter at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) around the same time that he lodged his salary claim, but lacking evidence of these transactions, he was told that MOM could not pursue this matter.

The only way to see the $4,800 now is as yet another investment in the hopes of sending money back to his wife and two sons — a bad bet, as it turns out.

Younose presses a button and his phone screen lights up. Cracks run across it, but a skinny boy grins back at us – this is his older son, Jonoyed, and his younger son is only 6 months old. What does a father do when an investment doesn’t pay?

It’s not even that the job would would have earned him riches. The promised salary was $700 a month — the salary documented on his IPA. But that’s just on paper. His wages were never credited.

Each month, “Boss say, ‘Coming, Coming. I give, wait, wait. Later give, later give.’”

We ask, Did you press harder?

“How? He [will] send back me.”

In fear of premature repatriation, Younose put up with this for four months before patience ran out and he filed a case. The result is a number of meetings between him, the company, and mediators from TADM (Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management). His boss argues that the company is bankrupt. One can only wonder: even if Younose’s salary claim is deemed legitimate, how would the company pay the sum stated on the resulting court order?

“So how, now?” I ask.

The question hangs between the both of us. Many of his colleagues had already been sent back to Bangladesh without a single cent of their owed salary, Younose says.

His MOM case officer has informed him that he is free to look for a transfer job.

Younose explains that he has heard of a job opportunity, except that this fixer (not the same guy as the last time) is asking for a fee of $3,000. Younose drums his fingers against the table and smiles back at me. I wonder if he is as worried as I am about how flimsy this plan sounds. After I press him for more information, he admits that he has never met the man before. It’s a “Bangla man,” he says, a friend of a friend in another company. Not a licensed employment agent – another illegal agent.

Does Younose have the money to pay this man? No, of course not.

And even if he did and paid up, but the new job turns out badly, would he be able to recover this new sunk cost of $3,000? Of course not. MOM will likely say there’s nothing they can do so long as the fixer takes a little care to keep the transaction in cash.

It’s a good thing that MOM now routinely offers the right of transfer to all workers who have valid salary claims against their previous employers. This is a definite improvement over the old system when the workers had to be repatriated even though they had not received their salaries. From there, they’d have to find an “agent”– often an unlicensed one in the home country — to source a new job for them.

But the flip side of this change is that illegal agents now flourish in Singapore. Whereas money changing hands illegally used to be almost exclusively confined to home countries, it is becoming a more common tale here. Some Work Permit holders take advantage of their good relationships with their bosses to act as job fixers.

It’s true that without evidence, enforcement of the law will be difficult. But enforcement is not the only solution. A clear-eyed analysis of where the problem springs from leads us to another possible solution. The root problem is that foreign workers have no access to information as to job vacancies except through fixers, thus creating opportunities to charge illicit fees. But this is easily overcome: Require all employers with Work Permit quotas to post their vacancies on a national foreign worker job portal. Employers must be required to hire through the portal and must certify that they have not taken money from employees or used the services of unlicensed agents. Should complaints be lodged, administrative penalties can be applied where evidence may not quite meet the high standards of prosecution.

TWC2 has recommended this approach for some years. It’s time to take the idea seriously.