Migrant workers coming into Singapore have their IPAs checked at Immigration

By TWC2 volunteer Katia B, based on an interview in May 2019

All the workers we meet and support at TWC2 have left their home country and family to work abroad in the hope of making it out of poverty. Not only are they made to pay horrendous sums for just getting a job, migrant workers are also risk being victims of scams.

Hebal (not his real name) is one of them.

He tells me that despite having various diplomas in textile engineering and graphic design, making a decent living in Bangladesh was not possible for him. So when Hebal heard from an agent in his small village outside of Dhaka about a “conservation” job that would pay him $600 a month and even more with some overtime, he agrees.

He didn’t even know what a “conservation” job was, but any job was better than none.

Soon, Hebal was shown a document called “IPA” [see Glossary for an explanation] with the logo of Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM) at the top of the page. On it too was stated the promised basic salary of $600, and thus assured, Hebal paid the recruiter the $12,000 fee.

Hebal received this IPA from his recruiter while he was in Bangladesh. It shows as basic salary of $600 per month.

He was then handed his air ticket and very soon, in early August 2018, he was in Singapore. At Changi airport, he showed an immigration officer the IPA, and was waved through.

He passed his medical check-up, was shown to his dormitory in a public housing estate and started on the job. He soon discovered what a “conservation” job was: cleaning public areas in housing estates and collecting municipal and household trash.

Injury within the first month at work

Within weeks, ill luck and other problems struck. He met with an accident in late August 2018 – described in the companion article Four teeth and a town council cleaner’s hours – which took a long time to recover from. However, it is not clear what his medical leave status was through this period. Hebal claims that pain persisted well after medical leave ended, making it difficult for him to work.

Anyway, his relationship with his employer deteriorated quickly and it was made known to him that if he did not return fully to work, his Work Permit would be cancelled and he would be sent home. There was even one occasion, Hebal tells me, when he was hit and slapped in the face.

Around the end of November 2018 or the beginning of December, Hebal approached an MOM officer to complain about the beating and being forced to continue working while having pain from his injury. Hebal says the officer advised him that as the case was not yet serious enough to be filed, it might be better to go back to work — or something to that effect. However, the officer said that should there be an attempt to repatriate him prematurely, Hebal should approach an immigration officer at the airport. The officer issued him with a case reference number for easy identification. The officer’s advice and action would later prove to be very valuable.

Barely two or three weeks later, things came to a head. On 17 December 2018, Hebal was informed that his boss had asked the company’s employment agent to cancel his Work Permit and book a flight to send him home.

The next day, Hebal was driven to the airport and made to check in.

But Hebal followed the advice given to him by the MOM officer and, after entering the controlled area, he approached an immigration officer for assistance. He showed the case reference number to the officer who looked it up on a computer. Although Hebal couldn’t see what was on the screen, he believes a note had been left on the system and reading it, the immigration officer let him remain in Singapore, telling him he should make his way to MOM at the earliest opportunity.

“Wow,” was Hebal’s reaction on seeing how efficient Singapore’s digital systems were. He was impressed. “It saved me,” he tells TWC2.

The immigration officer also had a heart of gold. She gave him $100 for his immediate expenses and some suggestions where he could find a bed for the night.

Hebal went to MOM the next working day to formally open a case, and came to TWC2 for help the day after.

Salary shock

At some point, Hebal brought up to MOM the issue of his salary.

“Even though I worked so much overtime,” he explains to me, “my salary was only $650 every month.” His absurdly long hours will be described in the companion article Four teeth and a town council cleaner’s hours. He didn’t think he was correctly paid since the IPA stated his basic monthly salary to be $600. On top of the injury issue, he felt he had a rightful salary claim.

That was when he received a rude shock. MOM told him that according to their computer records, the employer had registered a basic salary of only $384. The IPA that had been given to Hebal by his recruiter five months earlier in Bangladesh was fake.

In January 2019, when he lodged a salary complaint, Hebal received this formal note from the Ministry of Manpower telling him that his employer declared a salary of only $384 per month, in July 2018 — before he had even started work. This would mean that the original IPA issued on the same date would also have stated the same salary. But Hebal does not have that version of the IPA.

How did that happen? How could MOM’s much-vaunted digital system fail him so badly?

Actually, the IPA issuance process has a glaring vulnerability. MOM does not issue IPAs directly to workers; it issues them (as PDF documents) to employers and their agents, with the expectation that they should either email the document to the workers, or print them out and hand the print copies to them.

But PDF documents are easily altered by any number of editing software. Salaries stated there can be changed; we have even seen an employer’s name substituted (see the story Swindle, cheat and manipulate, example no. 2).

A closer look at the $600 IPA that Hebal received reveals clues that the salary on it had been modified.

And yet, when Hebal presented his $600 IPA at Immigration on arrival at Changi airport, the forgery was not detected.

That said, detecting fake IPAs at Immigration is too late. Workers would already have paid thousands of dollars to their recruiters by then. Instead, immediate steps must be taken to plug the vulnerability, and the best solution is for MOM to issue the IPAs directly to workers. If Hebal had been able to check on his IPA from the beginning by accessing MOM’s system, he could have known that the IPA handed to him was false. He would naturally refuse to pay the recruiter the asked-for $12,000 and avoid the hefty financial loss.

This subsequent article Swindle, cheat and manipulate: so what can be done proposes some solutions.