Our obsessive compulsion to kick migrant workers out meets Covid-19 vaccine

So, the government has promised to give free Covid-19 vaccination to work permit holders domiciled in Singapore. Considering that migrant workers with work permits form about a quarter of the population over 16 (the vaccines are not meant for those below 16 years old), this means that about a quarter of the “over $1 billion” budget we have set aside to obtain vaccines will be spent on them. That’s about $250 million.

It is a good and necessary decision.

But what we need to watch out for is policy incoherence. It is foolish to have the health authorities vaccinating all migrant workers at great cost to the taxpayer and then have the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) mandating repatriation. In time, to replace the repatriated workers, new ones are brought into Singapore who may not be vaccinated.

MOM gives employers the power to terminate their employees’ work permits at any time, and many employers are more than happy to use this power in order to stamp their workforce into subservience. Under present policy, workers whose permits are terminated have to be repatriated except for three restricted scenarios, explained below.

The three scenarios are:

1. When the employer gives the worker permission to look for a new job. This rarely happens, for reasons discussed further down.

2. When the worker has a valid salary claim, in which case, MOM at its discretion, may give workers permission to look for a new job at the end of the claim process. Relative to the nearly one million work permit holders, not many workers file salary claims, so this exception to the repatriation rule does not benefit many.

3. For construction workers, there is a short “Change of Employer” window when their work permits are nearing expiry. The exact details of this option needs to be explained so that one can see how it is also abused.

Between eight and six weeks (56 days to 42 days) prior to a work permit expiry, the employer can renew an employee’s permit. It is a simple online transaction (though prior actions such as renewing insurance must first be taken) and costs just $35.

If the employer chooses to renew the work permit —

The worker has no choice over the matter; he must continue with the same employer. If he really does not want to continue in the job, he can resign, but that will mean that he must be repatriated.

If the employer chooses not to renew the work permit —

Between 40 and 21 days prior to the expiry date, the foreign worker gets a chance to look for a new job. The new work permit application from the new employer must be submitted by the 21st day.

Pride and spite

With respect to scenario 1 (transfer with employer’s consent), this is frustratingly (to workers) uncommon. Many employers adopt a policy of never consenting to transfer. Bosses naturally fear than once they allow one worker to resign and switch to another company, other employees may follow suit and ask to be released. Thus, any claim by the authorities that the consent-transfer option demonstrates the flexibility of Singapore’s foreign labour market is belied by the reality that this exists more on paper than in real life.

Other times, such cold, hard calculation on employers’ part is difficult to make out. We have come across cases where, due to business weakness, the employer agrees to let a worker go since he needs to reduce his payroll cost anyway. At first, the boss says he will give consent to a transfer, but as soon as he hears from the worker that he has succeeded in securing a new job, the boss feels miffed about it and reneges on his promise to issue a consent letter. Why does the boss feel miffed? It’s never very clear, but it may be because the boss sees the worker’s success in landing a new job as a slap in his face, or because the worker is moving to a competitor — a step which the boss finds intolerable especially when his own business is failing.

By reneging on his earlier promise to agree to a transfer, and yet cancelling the work permit, the worker must be repatriated. The worker is of course unhappy, the new employer is unhappy, but MOM would likely say there is nothing they can do — but in fact there is, since policy or policy exceptions are very much within their control. The previous boss achieves nothing except to salve his ego. More importantly, Singapore would lose an experienced worker, and after vaccination is rolled out, a vaccinated one too.

Very short window for transfer post-salary claim

That MOM can make policy exceptions can be seen from how they allow workers with valid salary claims to look for new jobs without need for their previous employers’ consent (scenario 2 outlined above).

Yet even here, there seems to be an underlying preference for making it hard for workers to get new jobs, thus prioritising repatriation instead. MOM typically gives workers only two weeks to find new jobs, maybe with one extension of another 14 days. Even citizens, without being restricted to job sectors, or only such employers who have quotas, without need to apply for permits, will find it very hard to land new jobs within 14 days.

Given such a short period of time, the success rate of such transfer-seekers is poor and many workers find themselves being repatriated.

The showpiece

Whenever the ‘Singapore is too quick to repatriate’ subject arises, MOM tends to roll out its showpiece (scenario 3 above) citing how construction workers are allowed to change employers if current employers do not wish to renew their work permits. It is usually presented as an example of how sympathetic and enlightened our policies are.

In reality, it is not much more than a thin facade.

As readers can note from the details of the scheme, it benefits very few and only for a very limited time.

(a) Only for construction workers (though the intention is to expand it gradually to other sectors);

(b) Only for workers whose employers do not want to renew their work passes — not for all workers nearing the expiry of their work permits;

(c) Only given 20 days to look for new jobs.

Here too, TWC2 has seen cases where employers’ hurt pride and spite come into play. There have been cases of employers, clearly with no intention of renewing work permits — the workers tell us that the company has little work left — choosing to cancel work permits in the weeks before the window period. (Cancelling is immediate and is not the same as not renewing.)

Because the policy says workers can only look for new jobs 40 to 21 days before expiry of the work permit (the window period), once denied of this window period through early termination, the workers must thus be repatriated.

MOM’s showpiece is less than it looks.

The disconnect between national interest and private interest

It’s a no-brainer to see that the national interest lies in retention of skills, experience and, going forward, Covid-19 immunity. But private interests can go off in many directions; they don’t have to be aligned with national interests. An employer whose business is going downhill and wants to shed staff has no interest in retention for Singapore’s sake. He will want to cut costs as quickly as possible and there’s no better way than to repatriate his workers forthwith.

Meanwhile, MOM’s policies remain largely driven by a spectre of large numbers of unemployed foreigners which explains why there is a strong bias towards repatriation rather than retention. There is also the instinct to be “employer-friendly” — words that we at TWC2 have in the past heard MOM officials use — which suggests that MOM’s policies may be more aligned with private interests than national interests.

The result is the present irony. We expected vast lay-offs due to the economic effects of the pandemic, but it turned out that our problem is the opposite. We have a shortage of foreign workers due in no small part to employers sending their excess employees home in accordance with MOM policies. (We would note that some of these employees already have Covid-19 immunity, and therefore should be valuable.)

The shortage has now resulted in MOM having to start allowing new workers in, despite uncertainty over these new workers’ Covid-19 status or vulnerability. See this article from 15 December 2020: Authorities ease entry restrictions for new foreign workers to address labour crunch.

The inflexibility built into Singapore’s foreign labour management policies is now laid bare. When workers are excess to requirement for one employer, the main response is to send them home rather than make it easy for them to move to another employer (who may be desperate for staff). Where we used to rely on rapid circular migration (i.e. send workers home, bring new workers in) Covid-19 has shown that once rapid circular migration became impossible with borders closed, Singapore is ill-served by MOM’s policies and we ended up with a labour crunch, which is likely to add friction to our economic recovery.

In any case, rapid circular migration was never such a great idea. By failing to retain skills and experience, we hobbled our own productivity for years.

We have spent millions of dollars housing, isolating and treating migrant workers during 2020. Nearly half of them now have immunity. We’ve going to spend millions more vaccinating them. And we’re going to let employers repatriate them at a whim?

Give workers three months to find new jobs

Singapore should have a regulatory framework that prioritises retention over repatriation, job mobility over captive bondage. We should follow Qatar’s example (see Qatar abolishes its kafala system, when will Singapore do so?) and permit every worker to change jobs. When a worker is laid off or when he has resigned, he should have three months’ residency in Singapore to look for a new job.

Meanwhile, as is likely to be required given the new virus landscape around the world, we should remain circumspect about allowing new workers in.

The last thing we should be doing is to vaccinate workers and then give employers free rein to repatriate them.