Based on an interview in February 2020.

This story shines a light at the misrepresentation by Singapore-based dalals, and the possibly complicit behaviour of unethical employers. A ‘dalal’ is an freelancing recruiter — a word that comes from Bengali. It connotes someone who is outside formal recruitment agency systems and whose activities (at least in Singapore) are of a shadowy character.

Shipyard worker Hossain found his job at Teclita Marine Services Pte Ltd through a fellow Bangladeshi named Sumon who, according to Hossain, works in Singapore and holds an S-Pass, though we have no way to confirm this. S-Passes are work passes issued by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for foreign employees earning over $2,400 a month (as at February 2020), and who meet minimum qualification criteria.

“But he not really work,” says Hossain. Each time Hossain contacts Sumon, Hossain finds him quite free and “walking around Little India.”

Sumon could be using the S-Pass as a cover for his recruitment activities, not having to do whatever work as stated in the pass.

Allowing for an alternative explanation — that Sumon is an S-Pass employee of a licensed recruitment agency — we do a few checks. On Hossain’s In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit, the employment agency involved in his hiring is Cogan Management & Consultancy Pte Ltd, and a quick check with MOM’s online listing of licensed employment agencies returns this information:

Clearly there is no Sumon in the above. Neither of the faces looks Bangladeshi.

The online list also allows a personnel search. No result is returned for a search with the name “Sumon”. This strongly suggests that there is no licensed recruiter by this name in Singapore. Since it is against the law to be performing employment recruitment activities without a licence, the role of Sumon in the hiring of Hossain thus appears highly suspicious. Yet Sumon must be connected either with Cogan Management or directly with the employer Teclita Marine Services; how else would Hossain have gotten the job?

$7,000 pocketed by somebody

Hossain was in Bangladesh in mid-2019 looking around for a job when he came to know of Sumon. Even then, Sumon was already in Singapore. A job offer was made to Hossain, promising “one day $22” as the basic salary — which would be equivalent to a monthly basic salary of $572 — and which Hossain accepted.

Hossain was asked to pay $7,000 for the job, with the money paid to Sumon’s wife, also in Bangladesh.

When the In-Principle Approval (IPA) came through, Hossain was shocked to see that the salary was nowhere near $572 per month. It was only $360.

Hossain’s In-Principle Approval (IPA), imaged from the copy on his phone.

A more detailed explanation of the legal and administrative significance of an IPA is can be found in Glossary.

Hossain asked Sumon why the salary was different, and Sumon’s reply was apparently that “company have temporary problem, so salary like this,” while giving the assurance that it would be adjusted upwards when the “temporary problem” was resolved.

Being no fool, Hossain didn’t quite believe that, but what choice did he have? It was either take what’s on offer or no job at all. Singaporeans find it hard to understand why workers like Hossain don’t turn down dodgy offers, but then Singaporeans don’t know what’s it like to live in a country with massive unemployment, where families are one paycheck away from going hungry.

So Hossain hoped for the best and flew into Singapore to commence work.

Your reporter notices that the occupation stated in the IPA is “Welder & flame cutter” and asks Hossain whether he has a certification for such work. Yes, he does, he says. He attended training and acquired a certificate (in Singapore) during his previous stint working here. “Boss pay for training,” he explains. The previous employer must have been a good one.

Then Hossain adds that in the Teclita job, he’s not given any welding work. “Just rubbish work, here and there,” is how he describes what he’s tasked to do.

Nearly 40 other workers joined the company in the month or so following his arrival in September 2019. Comparing notes, they all found themselves in a similar situation.

“All forty man have IP [salary] $360 same,” says Hossain. “But all man say company at first promise more — $25, even $30, like that.” This monthly basic salary of $360 is equivalent to only $15.10 a day, which is an absurdly low wage.

However, Hossain does not know if Sumon was involved in the hiring of the others.

Arbitrary deductions

When Hossain received his first month’s wages, he got another shock. From the already low salary, the boss deducted $140 for housing.

Pointing to the number stated on the IPA, Hossain says, “IP here say $90 cutting [deduction] for house, why anyhow cut $140?” In effect, his salary was arbitrarily reduced further to just $220 a month!

After five months seeing the $140 deduction re-appear monthly, he took this up with his boss. It didn’t go well. As recalled by Hossain, “Boss say, ‘[If] you not happy, you go MOM.’ But when I go to MOM, my work permit cut.”

Hossain’s case is ongoing.

But he also knows that the dispute about housing deductions is the lesser of the two problems. The main problem is that someone took $7,000 from him to get him this “rubbish job”.

“I must get back $7,000, or my family die,” is how he describes his present problem.

TWC2 tells him it’s going to be very difficult; our observation from many previous cases of illegal Singapore-based dalals taking money is that enforcement and restitution is patchy to poor.

Hossain tried to get a refund from Sumon but in the first attempt, he was told by Sumon that “all money give boss already.” Further attempts proved futile; Sumon no longer takes Hossain’s calls. If what Sumon told Hossain is true — that the boss was the ultimate recipient of the money — it would be an offence too.

TWC2 suggests that he pass Sumon’s phone number (9130xxxx) to MOM to enable the authorities to trace this person. Hossain doesn’t understand why that can help.

“Because in Singapore, every SIM card must be registered with an ID,” we say.

“No,” says Hossain. “Can get SIM card, no need to show ID or work permit.”

He may know something we don’t. Perhaps there is an underground network passing falsely-registered SIM cards.

Singapore’s black economy

Exploiting vulnerable communities to get cheap labour (and to enrich themselves) is the main business model for illegal recruiters and unethical employers. By raking in thousands of dollars from recruitment fees from each worker, the receiving party will soon be buying houses and Porsches, while migrants’ families slide deeper into poverty.

TWC2 has previously suggested that money-laundering laws should also be applied. These laws allow ill-gotten gains to be seized — supplementing employment and employment agency laws. Money laundering laws require a predicate condition that makes the ill-gotten gains “dirty”. The fact that an unlicensed person is taking money for performing employment agency services (illegal), or that an employer is taking a kickback to offer a job (also illegal) should suffice as a predicate condition.

Hossain’s story is no isolated case. TWC2’s research paper More of here, less of there, published in May 2019 found that Singapore-based dalals are involved in about half of recruitments, raking in an estimated $232 million a year in dirty money. Anecdotally, many workers also report that their employers shared in the proceeds.

Hossain’s last comment about SIM cards hint at yet another side of Singapore’s black economy, this one with internal security implications.

It almost seems as if Singapore’s much-vaunted law and order is hollowing out, becoming a mere facade while all sorts of ugly activities flourish behind the scenes. This probably has a lot to do with authorities too keen to boast of passing new laws while paying only lip service to the hard work of investigation and enforcement.

Meanwhile, families like Hossain’s lose their savings.