By Ajay, based on an interview in July 2019

32-year-old Salim has only been in Singapore for 36 hours, and he’s absolutely terrified. This is his story.

Salim had already been working in Singapore for several years when his contract expired and he had to return to Bangladesh. When an agent offered him a chance to return for a $950-a-month job, he jumped at the opportunity despite the immense cost: a $5,800 agent fee. But opportunities in Bangladesh were so sparse that he had no choice.

While still in Bangladesh, he paid his agent “2 lakh 40 thousand” taka (roughly Singapore dollars $3,800) as the first portion of the payment. In return, he was handed his golden ticket: an In-Principle Approval (IPA) letter. In Singapore, a company that applies for a Work Permit to hire a foreign worker will, upon successful application at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), receive an IPA letter, a copy of which has to be sent to the worker. The incoming worker has to show it to Singapore Immigration on arrival.

Without a practice of written contracts, this IPA is also the only proof workers like Salim have of a job offer. Details there include the employer’s name and the promised monthly salary. In his case, the stated basic salary was $950 a month.

The trap is sprung

Yesterday, at 6am, Salim touched down in Singapore. Within the hour, he had to pay his agent the balance of $1,900. At TWC2, we notice something interesting about that number: it is twice the monthly basic salary stated on the IPA.

Twice is the maximum that a licensed employment agent can charge a worker under Singapore law. This amount is probably the officially recorded payment, whereas the $3,800 paid earlier in Bangladesh must be the unofficial top-up. That said, the person Salim calls his agent almost surely does not have a licence, since, according to Salim, he is a fellow Bangladeshi operating in Singapore. So, if this fellow is brazen enough to operate as an illegal agent, why would he care about keeping his (total) fee within the legal maximum?

Arriving at his worksite, Salim was instructed to perform basic tasks for the day. 

As his first workday came to a close, his troubles began. Salim’s boss at Chong Yew Building Materials & Construction asked Salim what work he had been doing when previously employed in Singapore.

“Welding work,” replied Salim.

He had told his agent the same, and had been expecting a welding job this time around too. It’s not clear though how explicit he had been about his expectations when he first spoke to his agent back in Bangladesh, but the salary stated on the IPA does support the belief that he had been promised a welder position. Foreign worker welders earn around $1,000 a month (and up), whereas the going rate for general construction workers is half or two-thirds that.

“My company welding job don’t have, only have rebar and structural work,” replied Salim’s boss.

Salim was given some time to think it over. 

Frustrated, Salim called his agent, who simply gave Salim another phone number to call, denying any responsibility for the situation. To make matters worse, Salim’s boss called him afterwards, offering two choices: accept the low-skilled, physically-demanding rebar and structural work for $20 a day (equivalent to $520 a month), or go back to Bangladesh.

Neither option was good. The latter option would leave him $5,800 poorer than before.

The boss made his preference clear. “Job very difficult, very hard, I think you better go back.”

No good options

It’s at this juncture that Salim approaches TWC2 volunteers at our Little India meal station. He shows us his IPA. However, it’s almost futile whatever is said on the IPA.

Yes, the $950 salary is mentioned, and under the law, this should be the salary and there should be no reduction without free-will agreement of the worker. But the law also says that an employer can terminate a worker’s employment at will; no reason needed. If the employer chooses to ax the employee, what use is the stated salary on the IPA?

What about the bit about being a welder? Salim’s IPA specifies his job merely as a ‘construction worker’, a deliberately broad term. While some IPAs name jobs such as ‘welder’, some do not. Even if it did, so what? The employer can terminate him anytime.

What about recovering the $5,800? There is no proof that Salim paid any money to his agent.

Salim can try to open a case against his employer, but the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) may say there are no grounds.  Of course, this will put him in conflict with his employer, and he’ll lose his job with this company.

We explain that he may be allowed by MOM to look for a new job locally without first having to go home.

“MOM will find for me?” he asks our TWC2 volunteers. They reply in the negative, explaining again that the most MOM will do is to give him a short window to look for a new job.

Salim’s eyes fall, and he rubs his knuckles nervously.

“I cannot find job…” he trails off. 

The scam described here has a name: Contract Substitution. It is analogous to ‘bait and switch’ in consumer marketing. Contract substitution — replacing agreed terms of employment with poorer terms at a moment when the worker is most vulnerable — is internationally recognised as an indicator of human trafficking. Singapore may not want to be known as a place where human trafficking can flourish, but in truth we leave huge, wide-open doors to invite the practice in. We do next to nothing about illegally high recruitment costs when a part of it is paid outside Singapore. We do next to nothing when unlicensed persons operate as employment agents. We permit employers to terminate employees at will, thereby undercutting the protection supposedly offered by IPAs. And we have no system for victim-protection either.