Over the years, many workers have told us about misrepresentation during their recruitment

Two recent articles this one and this one described job scams. Over the years, we’ve carried many more stories like these where prospective workers were lured to jobs that either didn’t exist or the terms of employment were different from what they had agreed to.

While there is a role for investigation and prosecution to keep the problem in check, such post-facto responses will never be enough. There will always be a new crook as soon as we catch an old one.

A more lasting solution has to come from a close examination of the vulnerabilities of Singapore’s system for permit certification and then fixing those gaps. Fortunately, Singapore has long had a fairly good system of pre-approval for Work Permits. The process outputs a document known as In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit (“IPA”), which carries quite a number of details about the name of the employer, the salary, etc. A more detailed explanation of this document can be found in the Glossary.

The image below is an example of an IPA.

The misrepresentation suffered by Mohatab is discussed in the article Swindle, cheat and manipulate, example no.2

Unfortunately, the current system relies too much on the honesty of intermediaries. Should they be dishonest, it would be very hard for prospective workers to know it before they hand over large amounts in recruitment fees. Looking at TWC2’s cases over the years, misrepresentation is fairly common. This is a problem crying out for a solution.

The graphic below shows the first of two main stages under the present system. In this first stage, a prospective worker approaches a recruiter in his locality — almost always an unlicensed one in the case of India and Bangladesh, and quite often an unlicensed one in total disregard of the law even in Singapore — to ask for help in introducing him to a job here. The recruiter has contacts among employers and manages to find a vacancy for this client.

Once a verbal agreement is reached, the employer or his employment agent then goes online and makes an application for a Work Permit through the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM’s) web interface. The employer has to enter quite a lot of detail, including the basic salary, allowances and deductions.

But — and here is a glaring flaw — the prospective worker has no visibility into this process. The recruiter may have promised the worker a monthly salary of, say, $1,600, but the worker may be none the wiser if the employer or his agent declares a salary of only $500 a month in the online application.

The second stage of the present process is when MOM gives approval. The employer or his agent then goes online again to retrieve the In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit (IPA) in PDF format. The employer or his agent is then required to forward a copy of this IPA document to the worker. The transmission is often routed through the recruiter. “Required to forward” is one thing. Whether the employer actually does so is another thing. TWC2 has come across many cases where workers report that they never received a copy; they can’t even tell us what was on the IPA.

Now, one might think that if an employer inputted salary details different from what was agreed between the worker and recruiter, the worker will know of it as soon as he receives his copy of the IPA. However, as mentioned, not all workers receive their copies. Secondly, we have documented at this website several instances as far back as 2017 (see the article: Fraud committed using ministry letterhead) where the PDF document might have been manually altered before being forwarded to the worker. Such manual alteration covers up the fact that in the online application, a different set of numbers was entered.

The flaw that needs fixing is glaringly obvious: the worker has no visibility into the process and no participation when the information being inputted is so critical to his rights. Yet case law in Singapore generally recognises the salary details in the IPA as legally binding unless there is proof of different terms of employment. So, it should be essential that he has a way to participate in the IPA process.

A better way

The worker must be given input rights and the transmission chain that is vulnerable to alteration must be eliminated. We would suggest that no work permit application initiated by an employer or his agent should be processed until a worker goes in electronically and gives his assent.

Then, when MOM approves the application, the IPA should be sent directly to the worker in the same way it is sent directly to the employer.

Do all prospective migrant workers have the digital literacy to log in, click “accept” or download a PDF document? At TWC2, we believe so. We see hundreds every day; all of them have smart phones. They use any number of apps. We don’t anticipate any technological barrier for them.

User identification

The main shortcoming that has to be resolved before our “better way” can be implemented is that presently workers do not have log-in rights to MOM’s server. Only employers and their employment agents do.

It’s a legacy problem. Our reading is that MOM did not design the system for workers’ electronic participation because in the early days, the workers were outside Singapore. How to verify their identity to give them passwords, etc when they were over there?

But as our research article More of here, less of there points out, the situation has changed. Nowadays, about 80 percent of migrant workers seen by TWC2 are re-hires, or repeat workers, i.e. they are on their second or subsequent jobs. Logically therefore, about 80 percent of the time, IPA applications submitted to MOM by employers or employment agents pertain to workers already known to MOM from their previous jobs.

That is to say, if only we had issued them logins during their previous jobs, these workers would be able to participate in the IPA process for the returning jobs.

Well, it’s not too late. We can start giving logins to those who are now in Singapore, and to any worker coming here in future. Before long, we’ll find that the great majority of IPA applications can be of the kind that involve worker participation because the worker named in the application already has a login.

We can start by conducting a mass exercise to re-register all workers currently in Singapore, issuing them logins. Future workers can be given their logins when they go to MOM to collect their newly-issued Work Permits.

Don’t reinvent the wheel, we already have SingPass

What might logins for migrant workers look like? The easiest would be an extension of Singapore’s SingPass system. Even now, in theory, “selected” Work Permit holders can apply for a SingPass (though it is not clear why only “selected” ones can apply). That said, there are complications in practice. To begin with, the initial password for SingPass, on successful registration, will be sent to the user’s registered address. Foreign workers don’t have a registered address in the customary sense. They stay in massive dormitories that probably have no facility to receive mail, or their “address” is often the same as the employer’s company address.

Frankly, this is hardly a big problem and can easily be overcome. Just set up a booth on Sundays wherever foreign workers congregate and use that booth as a collection point for their initial password.

After that initial exercise is over, let MOM be the collection point on a continuing basis. As mentioned above, each time a worker has to collect a new Work Permit, he should also use the opportunity to get a SingPass, if he’s not already got one.

The mobile app for SingPass has good features for second factor authentication. In addition to keying in a personal identification number (PIN), one can use a fingerprint or a facepic to authenticate. These features allow a portability essential for migrant workers. They can even access the IPA system in future when they have gone back home but are looking for new jobs. See footnotes for these features.

What about first-time workers?

Issuing logins to prospective workers who have never come to Singapore before is a bit more difficult. First of all, SingPass requires an NRIC or FIN number as the first step in identification. First-time job applicants do not have FIN numbers.

Rather than go down the road of looking for a technological fix, there is a low-tech solution. The prospective worker should make two visits to the Singapore consulate in his country: firstly to view and assent to the IPA application submitted by the employer, and then when MOM has approved the IPA, to receive a copy of it. To prevent abuse, the worker should not be permitted to appoint another person to represent him; the worker has to show up in person and our consulates can easily check that it is him (or her) since the IPA application includes the worker’s passport number.

It is no different from tourists wanting visas. Typically, they have to make one visit to apply for a visa and a second visit to collect it.

The solutions are not hard. This then changes the question: Do we care enough about stopping misrepresentation and deception to set about making these improvements?

Here are four screenshots from https://www.singpass.gov.sg/singpass/resources/pdf/RegisterSingPass.pdf showing how security is set up using the SingPass mobile app.