By TWC2 volunteer Laurence T, based on an interview in June 2019

Three months after joining TWC2’s free meals program, Moggi (not his real name) comes up to me looking worried.

“MOM want to interview me,” he says, referring to the Ministry of Manpower. “Can go or not?”

From a quick glance at Moggi’s case file, he seems to have a salary claim. “Do you know what the interview is about?” I ask.

“About agent.”

There is no mention of any agent in his case records. In fact, his case file at TWC2 is rather scanty, which can happen when a worker, although registered with our food programme, indicates that he is confident about managing his own case at MOM and does not need much help from us.

Looking up from the computer screen, I tell him, “There’s nothing here about any agent.” Sensing a possible story, “Can you tell me more about that?”

“Can go [to the interview] or not?” asks Moggi again.

I turn to senior volunteer Alex, and he looks at Moggi, opening his eyes wide, “Of course you should attend the interview. Nothing to be afraid of.”

Alex explains to me: Like many bureaucracies around the world, MOM operates with considerable opacity. Although they put out the message that workers can rely on them to help, opacity is the enemy of trust. Workers don’t know what’s happening with their cases and naturally they worry. This explains why even a simple request to come in for an interview sends Moggi rushing to TWC2 to ask what he should do despite his initial confidence that he can handle his own case.

We assure Moggi that it would, in all likelihood, be just an interview and he shouldn’t imagine that at MOM, he’d be handcuffed or anything like that.

Pressing home his point, Alex asks him rhetorically, “Did you do anything wrong?”

“No, nothing,” replies Moggi, shaking his head.

“Then no need to be afraid. MOM simply wants to know about the agent and what happened.”

Paid three times

With that unambiguous advice, we now turn our attention to his story. As it soon becomes clear, the agent angle is the least of it.

A little prior to March 2018, Moggi was asked to pay $4,500 to secure a job with an employer whom we will call “Company One”. Since he was then in his home country, he wired the money to a friend in Singapore, who passed the money to, allegedly, the boss of Company One. The fact that he did get an In-Principle Approval (“IPA”) and that the job materialised would indicate that the payment went through.

An IPA is a letter generated by MOM informing a worker that an employer has applied for a Work Permit for him and that the application has been approved.

It should be stated here that it is illegal for Company One or the boss of the company to take money for offering someone a job.

The IPA indicated that his total monthly salary would be $1,650 per month, says Moggi. Though we didn’t go into depth about the salary he received in the following months, that Moggi doesn’t raise this as an issue in our conversation suggests that he was satisfactorily paid. What he does mention is that monthly salaries were paid in cash.

About six months later, around September 2018, the boss of Company One told Moggi that he would be given the option of a transfer to Company Two. Moggi tells me that Company Two was owned by the same boss – a man from China — so it does seem strange that a transfer should be suggested. Either Moggi was misinformed about the ownership or there was some other motive behind the change. Or both.

“Boss say must pay $2,000 if I want transfer,” Moggi says.

The alternative did not need to be articulated. If Moggi declined to pay, his Work Permit with Company One would be terminated and he’d be sent home which would mean that the $4,500 he had invested only six months earlier to get the job would have to be written off.

Singapore law allows employers to terminate employment at will. Combined with the common practice of making workers pay for their jobs, this freedom to cancel Work Permits gives unethical employers the power to extort.

Reluctantly, Moggi raised $1,600 and paid that in cash. The boss later deducted $1,000 from his following months’ salary, which means that in total $2,600 was taken from Moggi for the “privilege” of a transfer to Company Two.

“Did you get an IPA letter regarding your new job?” I ask.

“No, not get,” answers Moggi.

Company Two would have had to apply to MOM for a new Work Permit for Moggi, and thus a new In-Principle Approval letter (“IPA”) would have been generated if the application was approved – which apparently it was. The salary should be stated in the IPA, but MOM’s practice is to issue the IPA to the employer (or the employer’s agent) rather than directly to the worker. This gives the employer the opportunity to withhold the IPA and not pass it to the worker, as might have happened in Moggi’s case. Not seeing his IPA means that Moggie never got to know what salary was declared to MOM for the new job.

Barely three months into Company Two, the boss, through a supervisor, told Moggi that another transfer was being offered to him, to Company Three. This was around January 2019. Another $2,000 was demanded for the “privilege” of this transfer too.

What choice did Moggi have? None at all. So, another $2,000 changed hands.

“Did you get a Work Permit with the name of [Company Three] on it?” asks Alex.

“Yes,” confirms Moggi.

“So, an IPA for [Company Three] should have been issued,” explains Alex. “Did you get a new IPA this time?”

“No.”

“How did you get the Work Permit?” I ask Moggi.

“Company office give to me.” This is normal too. MOM sends newly printed Work Permits to employers, not directly to workers.

Moggi says Company Three is under the same boss, but TWC2’s checks reveal that he was misled. Who benefitted from this $2,000 payment is unclear.

Paid three times

Worse was to come. Company Three failed to pay salary. Moggi was concerned but stayed on the precious job he had paid so dearly for, hoping that the situation would improve.

However, about two and half months later came the tipping point. Reporting for work at a Tanjong Pagar worksite and presenting his Work Permit to the Main Contractor’s security guard to be scanned – the usual procedure – Moggi was told that the permit had been cancelled.

Moggi went to MOM to lodge a salary complaint. There, he got another shock.

“MOM officer say my basic salary only $286 [per month].”

But there was also a monthly allowance of $1,314, pointed out Alex, making a total fixed monthly salary of $1,600 per month.

I turn to Alex. “What’s the significance of this?”

He explains: By stating that Moggi would be paid at least a total fixed monthly salary of $1,600 a month (even though he was ultimately not paid), the employer would enjoy a much-reduced Foreign Worker Levy (a sort of tax on the hiring of migrant workers). The levy is lower at the higher salary levels, as a way of encouraging employers to upskill their workers.

However, by keeping the basic salary component at only $286 per month, any overtime hours put in by Moggi would be paid at a ridiculously low rate too. Overtime pay is based on basic salary, not total fixed monthly salary.

“So the employer saves on levy and saves on overtime wages too?” I ask Alex to confirm my hunch.

“Right.”

And it is the worker who has lost out. The government too.

However, all that is just on paper. In reality, Company Three didn’t pay Moggi at all. I wonder if they paid the levy to MOM either.

Moggi’s salary claim is ongoing, and as we end our interview, I wish him the best.

What can be done?

Why did Moggi initially say his was an “agent case”? I soon learn that foreign workers, with their limited English vocabulary, use the term as a catch-all to describe a situation in which illegal kickbacks and payments are demanded from them.

But in addition to the issue of the boss demanding payments from him each time the idea of a transfer came up, Moggi’s story also highlights the problem of withheld IPAs, resulting in workers not knowing what the salaries would be after a transfer. Moggi had thought that the overtime work he put in for Company Three would be paid at a rate commensurate with the $1,650 figure in the first and only IPA he saw. It was only after visiting MOM that he realised that his overtime wages claim would have to be based on the much lower $286 figure. This number would have been on the IPA for Company Three — that’s how MOM could read it back to him — but Moggi never received a copy.

I ask Alex for his views on this.

The latter problem (not showing workers their IPAs) is actually very easy to solve, he says, and it should be implemented straight away. Since, in transfer situations, the worker is already in Singapore, MOM should ask the worker to come to the ministry to personally receive the transfer IPA instead of sending it to the employer. It would give the MOM officer a chance to explain to the worker the significance of any modified terms in the IPA compared to his previous job.

The problem of unscrupulous bosses demanding money in return for offering to vulnerable workers a job or a transfer is harder to solve. However intensive the investigation, it may remain difficult to get enough evidence to prosecute despite a law being on the books. Such bosses often demand payment in cash, leaving no traceable record.

Case-by-case investigation can only go so far, says Alex. The fundamental problem is the power imbalance between workers and employers that comes out of the fact that there are limited jobs available but – because Singapore opens our doors wide to low-skill jobless people in India, Bangladesh, China, Philippines, Myanmar and Indonesia – there are hundreds of millions seeking work here. When supply and demand is so skewed, naturally those who control the jobs (the bosses and their henchmen agents) will be highly tempted to demand a price for them.

TWC2, he says, has long pointed out that a sustainable solution requires addressing the supply and demand problem. TWC2 has called for greater restrictions in bringing in fresh new workers, thus requiring employers to only hire from the available pool here unless special permission to hire from abroad is given. When we rectify supply and demand, workers’ bargaining power will increase and they will be better able to resist demands for kickbacks from greedy bosses.

And the best part is this: when workers, with better bargaining power, can take care of themselves, there will be fewer investigation cases for MOM to do.

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