There are plenty of stories on this website describing how much workers have to pay to get jobs in Singapore. Just do a search with keywords ‘Recruitment’ or ‘Placement agents and fees’.

‘Kickback’ will also produce stories about employers demanding payment from their workers, usually as a condition for employing them or renewing their Work Permits.

The system we have today is a corruption of what began years ago when jobless young men in the villages and small towns of source countries first looked to Singapore (or other destination countries, e.g. the Gulf States) for work. Living in relatively remote locations, few could reach the offices of licensed agents. Filling the connection gap were all manner of entrepreneurial freelancers who were prepared to visit the small towns and villages to recruit.

We don’t have a single name for these “agents”. They are

  • freelancers
  • recruiters
  • job brokers
  • introducers
  • dalals

The last is a Bangladeshi and North Indian word now often used by the workers themselves to describe these individuals who are almost always unlicensed.

The video below will describe in six minutes how badly the system has been corrupted.

Two major changes create an opportunity to make a change now.

The first is that migrant workers are now mostly already here in Singapore (albeit looking for subsequent jobs) and in the main, all have smart phones. The communication gap that the recruiters rushed in to fill a decade ago (when prospective workers were in the small towns and villages) is now easily bridged by phone technology.

Secondly, it is possible to issue all migrant workers in Singapore with SingPasses, allowing them to transact directly with government websites.

So, what can be done?

Our years of casework and regular contact with workers — thus the many stories on this site — has given us a deep knowledge about the matter, and this has enabled us to see what solutions are needed.

It is no small task to try to change something that has become entrenched and endemic. There are plenty of vested interests in the present situation that they may obstruct and even sabotage attempts at change.

For this reason, the reforms we propose won’t be easy. To succeed, they are going to need major companies, government and society behind them. Globally, things are moving — see this report in Guardian newspaper (22 June 2019, NGO’s softly-softly tactics tackle labor abuses at Malaysia factories). Also this more analytical feature which mentions how the USA banned imports of rubber gloves on account of labour abuses.

We’re going to need laws to be sternly enforced. The government should require all Work Permit vacancies to be openly advertised on a central portal, and perhaps even require that job applications and contract signing should be transacted through the portal.

Top-tier companies should adopt ethical recruitment standards and require the same from all their subcontractors or outsourced suppliers, backed up by audits.

It can be done. Nothing we have proposed is rocket science. What’s most sorely missing right now, as we see it, is the will to get going.