By Liang lei based on an interview in February 2019

When a foreign worker arrives in Singapore, he would have a letter titled In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit (IPA) from Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM), stating his personal details, employer and salary, amongst other details. The IPA letter has proven invaluable in guarding foreign workers’ salary rights, especially after a Singapore High Court ruling in 2017 that the letter can be proof of a worker’s appropriate salary.

While the legal processes surrounding the foreign workers’ entry into Singapore is clear, in murkier waters is the process of changing employers when the workers are already in Singapore. TWC2 suspects that this leaves foreign workers vulnerable to salary injustice, as the story of Rubel would exemplify.

All good for Rubel, on paper

Rubel arrived in Singapore in April 2018 to work in Sensory Hub Pte Ltd as a construction worker. On his IPA, the monthly basic salary was stated as $1,600. However, month after month, Rubel never received his full salary, despite often raising the matter with his superiors. “After give together,” mimes Rubel when re-enacting his conversations with his employer who indicated that the several months of owed salaries would be paid in full later.

Through the period of employment, “Only makan (eating) money give,” Rubel says, acknowledging that he got small sums of money to buy food.

A hasty transfer

In August 2018, Rubel received a notice from Sensory Hub that he would be transferred out of the company to another. “Paper coming, you transfer. Tomorrow you go. This also my company,” Rubel described of his employer’s words to him. As for owed wages, “Salary I give together.”

When I ask what documents Rubel received with respect to the transfer, he cannot recall any. More specifically, he is certain he did not see a new IPA letter. He was to a degree relieved that unlike other Sensory Hub workers, he got a transfer even though he was still owed his salary. Other Sensory Hub workers were simply terminated with no backpay.

Unsurprisingly, even at the new company, Feiteng1x Builder Pte Ltd, Rubel got nothing more than “makan money”. He had a Chinese worker in his dormitory working in the same company, but language differences made discussion about work and money matters rather difficult between them. According to Rubel, his employer repeatedly promised over calls to discuss money matters with him in person, but never showed up.

In November 2018, Rubel learnt that his Work Permit had been revoked by MOM. The employer had not paid the monthly foreign worker levy. This did not affect just him – many foreign workers employed by Feiteng1x Builder also suddenly found themselves ineligible to work. At a loss, all of them filed claims at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), which extended their stay in Singapore by issuing them Special Passes.

This led to a rude shock. MOM told him on receiving his claim submission that according to the ministry’s records, his basic salary at Feiteng1x was only $800 a month, half of what his Sensory Hub IPA stated. As a result, he had to slash his claim value by half. Rubel calculated that he was owed about $3,000 from Feiteng1x and $6,000 from Sensory Hub. He had worked about four months in each.

The missing IPA

How did Rubel not know that at Feiteng1x, he would be getting only half his previous basic salary? Explains Alex Au, a senior volunteer with TWC2:

One might expect that in arranging a transfer, the details of the new job would be carefully explained to Rubel, seeking his agreement. But the reality is that the power imbalance is so great between employers and foreign workers, employers can get away with saying nothing beyond issuing a command that the worker should start work under a different company the next day.

He adds:

MOM’s IPA system was designed for foreign workers arriving at Changi airport. They have to show it upon arrival in lieu of a tourist visa, which thus requires that the IPAs be sent to the workers before they come to Singapore to start their jobs. Since the salary details are stated on the IPA, workers get to see these details before they move to Singapore, and this gives them a small window wherein they can change their minds if the written salary is not the same as what was verbally discussed. This process was followed when Rubel came to Singapore for the Sensory Hub job — that’s why he has the IPA for that job.

MOM doesn’t seem to realise that using the same IPA system for local transfers creates a vulnerability for workers. Even though an IPA is generated for the new job application submitted by the prospective employer, employers get away with not showing the IPA to the worker, because in local transfers, the worker does not need to go through immigration. Without receiving the IPA, the worker has no idea what salary has been declared for the new job.

The Sensory Hub boss gave vague assurances that Feiteng1x was also his company, and workers like Rubel might therefore assume that the terms of employment at Feiteng1x would be the same as at Sensory Hub. In fact however, Feiteng1X is owned by Tan Kwan Yew of Bedok North, while Sensory Hub is owned by Kong Tien Hock of Toa Payoh. It appears that this was a case of misrepresentation.

Moreover, when Rubel started working for Feiteng1x, the employer should have issued him the Key Employment Terms (KET) within fourteen days as required by law. The KET would inform him of his salary at Feiteng1x among other details such as working hours. Arguably, this employer Tan Kwan Yew broke the law by failing to do so, leaving Rubel with a misassumption about his salary.

Hope and fatalism

Rubel is hoping to be able to get a new job in Singapore now that he has received $1,500. It is not clear from whom the money came — it could be the insurer behind the security bond, or from Migrant Workers Centre — but it is most unlikely to be the employer. However, the amount is a mere fraction of the total he is owed.

Without work and company-sponsored accommodation, he is currently on TWC2’s Cuff Road Food Programme and living at his friend’s apartment. His brother and uncle, both of whom are employed, are helping to cover his living expenses for the time being.

“How do you feel about this?” I ask, receiving a shrug from Rubel as response.

“Are you angry?” I second-guess.

Finally, he replies: “Angry for what? No help.”

Lax documentation a persistent issue for foreign workers

In our daily lives, it is almost an unspoken mantra that money matters be recorded in black and white – be it a sales receipt, employment contract or a notice for payment. In contrast, TWC2 has witnessed a worrying trend of foreign workers being subject to double standards in this regard, in many cases leading to injustice for them, as Rubel’s story would prove.

One silver lining to this issue is that it doesn’t seem a difficult problem to solve. MOM currently has detailed steps and instructions online for employers if they wish to hire overseas employees. This has made foreign employment a clearly regulated and documented process.

However, similar instructions for when foreign workers change jobs locally are lacking – there is little to ensure that workers are properly informed when transferring or taking up a new job locally. It’s time to make this a black-and-white matter too.