By TWC2 volunteer Avijit, based on an interview in May 2019

As we finish our conversation, Alamin (not his real name) smiles. “I already have next job”. His relaxed demeanor and eagerness to share his story is partly due to the fact that he now has a steady income in Singapore. His path wasn’t straightforward, though.

As Alamin sits down to share his story, I ask him to start at the very beginning, with his first interaction with his agent two years earlier in late 2016.

“I talk to friend” he recalls, “and  friend say his sister husband have job [to offer]”. His friend’s contact (the husband) was already in Singapore, working as an electrical engineer. “Engineer call me” Alamin continues, “he say good company.” But there would be a fee for the introduction.  The contact said he would “take $8000”.

Alamin agreed, certain that it would pay off in the long run. He asked his uncle (then working in Singapore) to meet the husband-contact-engineer-agent to pass him the fee. Within a week, Alamin received his In-principle Approval (IPA), a document from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) confirming that there would be a job and Work Permit waiting for him, and was soon heading over to Singapore with four other men. All of them had paid the same agent $8,000 each, says Alamin.

Although the figure seems high, this is in line with the findings from a recent survey conducted by TWC2. The results of the survey state that the median amount paid by first-time workers in Singapore is $7,750. The report with the survey results also lays out the reasons behind this. As many first-timers don’t have much information, they usually end up paying more than seasoned repeat workers. The fees Alamin paid are within the range of the results of the survey. More disturbingly, however, his story also falls in line with another trend highlighted in the report.

As an foreigner working in Singapore in an engineer’s job, Alamin’s “agent” would not have an employment agency licence. Thus, it would be illegal to act as a placement agent. According to TWC2’s survey results, this is a trend observed over the past two years — the rise of the unlicensed dalal based in Singapore. “Dalal” is a Bangladeshi term for an informal job broker. Whereas most migrant workers used to report working with agents based in Bangladesh, an alarming one-third of workers interviewed for the recent survey reported paying an unlicensed agent based in Singapore. As with Alamin’s case, many of these dalals charge multiple times the fees allowed under Singapore regulations. Under current guidelines, the maximum fee chargeable for a one-year Work Permit is the equivalent of a month’s salary, and for a two-year Work Permit, the equivalent of two months’ salary. If, as Alamin says, his salary was $18 a day, even a licensed agent should not charge him more than $468 for recruitment. An unlicensed “agent” shouldn’t even be involved.

Around this point in the story, Alamin gives me the twist in the plot. The husband-contact-engineer-agent turned out to be working in the same company. This too is a pattern TWC2 has observed. Each time TWC2 sees this, there is the suspicion that the lucrative fee was shared with other higher-ups in the company, though in this particular case, we have no evidence for it (there seldom is).

Alamin worked six months with the company before he was told that MOM revoked his Work Permit. His employer hadn’t paid MOM the monthly foreign worker levy, says Alamin. Upset that he lost the job without a chance to recover the $8,000 paid, he lodged a complaint at MOM.

It’s been two years now, and it appears that the investigation is still ongoing, though Alamin does not know anything for sure. He says he hasn’t been informed of the progress of the case except in general terms. What Alamin does tell me is that the agent told MOM his wife was sick and returned back to Bangladesh — it’s not clear whether he heard that from MOM or some other source, but if true, it does explain why the case seems to be taking so long.

Regarding unlicensed agents operating out of Singapore, the question arises: How to control the rise in this disturbing trend? Apart from the clear exploitation of vulnerable migrant workers, there is also a large chunk of lost revenue from unpaid fees. By TWC2’s estimates, there could be as much as $232 million in untracked fees being charged by unlicensed dalals.

As outlined in the recently published survey results, TWC2 recommends a centralised job portal advertising Work Permit level jobs. The portal can also handle job applications and assignments, bringing transparency and governance to the currently murky world of unlicensed agents. The portal would not only provide clear details to workers on the jobs they are applying to, but also make it easy to track activity.

As for Alamin, his story has a relatively happy ending. MOM permitted him to work elsewhere as the investigation into his case continued, and he is currently finishing up his current job before moving on to the next.