A worker came to us to show us two In-Principle Approval (IPA) letters. These are letters issued by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) that say that a Work Permit has been approved and will be available to the named person coming into Singapore for employment. It took only a quick glance at the two documents to know what the problem was. The IPAs were both issued to the same worker with the same date. This cannot be possible. Immediately we reckoned that one, or both, were forgeries.

Transient Workers Count Too has raised this issue of forged IPAs with MOM before, but the problem continues, as seen from this new pair of documents. We wrote about an earlier case from over two years ago in 2017 in Fraud committed using ministry letterhead and also discussed the problem in the essay In-Principle Approval: uses and abuses 2011-2018, part 3.

Mohatab Mohammad received version A back in his home country, Bangladesh, from his dalal (an unlicensed agent) whereupon he would be asked to pay the recruitment fee. We do not know how much was asked or whether it was paid. In any case, that’s beyond the point of this article. Version A names the employer as Shanghai Tunnel Engineering Co (Singapore) Pte Ltd. It shows a basic salary of $598 per month. With no allowances or deductions, the net monthly salary was also said to be $598 per month. The date of application of the IPA was 5 August 2019.

Mohatab had been cheated before. He had come for one job only to discover that it didn’t exist. So, this time, he asked around and found a licensed agent — we believe it would be a licensed agent in Singapore with access to MOM’s portal for agents — and asked this licensed agent to help him retrieve the IPA from MOM’s server. Version B was retrieved and printed out.

The date of application on Version B was also 5 August 2019. The stated employer, however, was different. On Version B it was Tian Yu Construction & Engineering Pte Ltd. The salary was a lot more complicated. The basic monthly salary was a very, very low $286. This was then padded up with allowances and then cut down with deductions to a net monthly salary of $812.

At TWC2, we’ve seen thousands of IPAs. We’ve also seen the format evolve over time. This experience led us to believe that Version A (the version Mohatab received from his dalal in Bangladesh) was forged. The font weight was heavier than usual, and the document had a extra field “Period of Work Permit” that is now obsolete. “Period of Work Permit” has not been included in recent IPAs. To suddenly re-appear in an August 2019 IPA was suspicious.

Here is a table that compares Version A with Version B:

But why?

The two main differences between Versions A and B were (a) name of employer and (b) salary structure. At TWC2 we do not know for sure the motives behind these changes, but we can make educated guesses.

Shanghai Tunnel Engineering is a huge, very reputable, company. On the Building and Construction Authority website, it has a high grading and is certified to be capable of taking on large projects. Tian Yu has a lower grading, suitable only for small projects. Shanghai Tunnel Engineering would be what foreign workers call a “main contractor” company, where management generally acts according to law and where jobs are relatively stable. Tian Yu would probably be seen by migrant workers as a “subcontractor” company with poorer and less secure terms of employment. TWC2 does not think that Shanghai Tunnel had anything to do with this scheme; its name was probably used without its knowledge.

Possibly the dalal recruiter needed to convince Mohatab that the job he (the dalal) found for him was a job with a main contractor. This would likely be used to justify a higher recruitment fee.

With salary, the picture may be counter-intuitive. The possibly-fake IPA (Version A) shows a lower net salary (“Monthly salary after taking into account fixed monthly allowances and deductions”) of $598 than Version B with $812. Why would the dalal want to tell his customer a lower salary?

A better way to look at it would be from the perspective of cost to the employer, which we believe to be really Tian Yu. There are two elements in the IPAs that are significant:

Levy Savings: The possibly-genuine IPA (Version B) shows at Fixed Month Salary of $1,612, i.e. before allowances and deductions. By declaring a Fixed Monthly Salary above $1,600, the employer might be hoping to enjoy a lower monthly Foreign Worker Levy, which is a kind of tax paid to the government. The levy savings between what’s applicable for a Fixed Monthly Salary of $1,612 (Version B) and $598 (Version A) can amount to hundreds of dollars a month.

Overtime pay: Under the Employment Act, overtime wages are calculated on the basis of 1.5 times Basic Salary. The possibly-genuine IPA (Version B) shows as ridiculously low Basic Salary of $286, which then means that the worker will be working for very little extra pay. The possibly-fake Version A shows a Basic Salary of $598. Seeing this, Mohatab might have been misled as to what he could expect to get for overtime.

What would have happened if worker came to Singapore?

This is hypothetical since Mohatab could clearly see that it was a scam.

But drawing from our other cases where workers have found themselves with duplicate-and-differing IPAs only after arriving in Singapore, Mohatab would have been met by a handler at Changi Airport who would take him to a boarding house for his first night. Then Mohatab would have been sent for the mandatory medical check-up, followed by an introduction to his new boss. He would be given work tasks but nobody would mention that the company was not the Shanghai Tunnel Engineering shown on the Version A IPA given to him.

The ruse wouldn’t last for long, nor would it need to. At some point, co-workers might mention to Mohatab that they were working for Tian Yu, not Shanghai Tunnel. Or, when Mohatab has to go to MOM for thumbprinting and issuance of his Work Permit, the handler would quickly pass a bundle of papers to him saying that Mohatab should show this bundle to MOM, and not the messy papers Mohatab had earlier received. Hidden within the bundle would be the genuine IPA, so that MOM would not suspect a thing. But workers tend to be curious and they often take a peek at what’s inside the bundle. If they did, they would quickly discover to their horror that the IPA details were different.

But the ruse doesn’t need to last for long. Once the worker has paid the “agent money”, often paid in the home country before he comes to Singapore, he is trapped anyway. Even if his salary is halved, even if the employer is not who he thought it would be, what can he do? Can he walk off the job in protest? Or would the lesser of two evils be to stay on in the job and at least earn something?

TWC2 brought this case to MOM’s attention in early September 2019. We hope a thorough investigation is carried out and the wrong-doers are punished. Such scams create real victims, impoverishing them and their families. Deceptive recruitment to entice someone to cross borders is considered an indicator of human trafficking under the UN’s Palermo Protocol which Singapore acceded to in September 2015. Singapore thus has a duty to stamp out the practice.

Yet, such scams arise because of the operational system that MOM has in place. The system has vulnerability. In the next part of this series, we will describe what we consider to be a better system.