Ashraf seems happy, as any migrant worker would be in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic to be offered a job. He tells TWC2 over the phone from Bangladesh that his new employer has put in an application for a work permit. However, he’s also been told by the new employer that he must pay within ten days $2,400 to cover the cost of quarantine.

Here is an image from Ashraf’s phone showing WhatsApp messages he received from a representative of the company:

The initials “IPA” refer to the In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit which, although issued by MOM, employers can cancel at any time.

Of course, Ashraf is not his real name. We would hardly want to jeopardise his new job.

14 + 7 days, and many tests

A Ministry of Manpower (MOM) directive dated 5 January 2021 (link) required newly arriving work permit holders to serve out a 14-day stay-home period during which they would also be tested. TWC2 understands stay-home periods are to be spent in a hotel. Following that, the workers have to stay a further seven days at a “designated facility”, during which they will be further tested. During these seven days, however, they can go out to work. The reason why they are not allowed to be moved directly to the usual dormitory on completion of the 14-day stay-home period is to minimise the risk of forming a new cluster in densely packed dormitories should a positive case be missed during the stay-home period.

It is estimated the cost for these periods will be $2,000 – $3,000 per worker.

On 3 March 2021, the directive was updated (link). The key parts of the new directive are:

From 15 March 2021, all newly-arrived migrant workers from the Construction, Marine and Process (CMP) sectors from higher-risk countries/regions will complete their regular Stay-Home Notice (SHN), additional 7-day SHN testing regime, medical examination and Settling-In Programme (SIP) at a one-stop pilot Migrant Worker Onboarding Centre (MWOC).

Today, newly-arrived CMP migrant workers need to serve 14-day SHN at hotels before they move to a designated facility for the additional 7-day SHN. Once they complete serving their SHN requirements, they can leave the designated facilities and go through their medical examination and SIP. From 15 March onwards, the workers will only serve SHN for a few days at hotels while awaiting the results of their On-Arrival Tests. Workers who clear these tests will then proceed to the MWOC to serve their remaining quarantine period and complete their end-to-end onboarding process, such as medical examination and residential SIP, all under one roof. The MWOC will be piloted at five dedicated Quick Build Dormitories (QBD) – Punggol, Eunos, Choa Chu Kang and two at Tengah.

From other pages on MOM’s website, the “higher-risk countries” appear to include India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Philippines, Indonesia — the main source countries for our migrant workers. China is the exception. However, this list can easily change as the pandemic evolves.

Employer to bear all costs

MOM’s clear directive on who should bear the costs can be seen at this page (link), but in case it is later removed, a screen capture of the page accessed on 11 March 2021 is below:

Clearly, Ashraf’s employer is breaking this rule. Even though the purpose of the asked-for $2,400 payment was not explicitly stated in the Whatsapp message (imaged above), the reason was conveyed to him separately beforehand. In any case, even if the reason is not stated, it is still illegal for employers to ask employees to pay for their jobs — for any reason.

Yet, Ashraf’s is not the first case that TWC2 has come across. His is the third, in the short space of less than one month.

Morut and Lami

Late February 2021, two workers who had just arrived in Singapore contacted TWC2. They had known us from before when they were in their previous jobs and just wanted to say hello now that they were back. Morut and Lami are not their real names either.

Morut had just completed his stay-home notice at Hotel Chancellor. He came by our meal station to refresh old acquaintances, but in the course of the conversation, he mentioned that he was expecting salary deductions over the next few months amounting to $2,200 — for the quarantine costs.

As for Lami, the issue surfaced in a slightly different way. When he told us that he was back in Singapore to start on a new job, we asked him, almost reflexively, “How much did you pay in ‘agent fees’ for this job?”

“No agent,” he said in reply. “Only must pay boss $2,200 for quarantine.”

Workers use the term “quarantine” interchangeably with MOM’s term “stay-home” period. Lami later added that in his case too, it would also take the form of future salary deductions.

Online chatter

In the second week of March, TWC2’s general manager Ethan Guo noticed online chatter about MOM’s amended advisory — the one discussed above that said that except for the first few days in a hotel, the rest of the 14+7 day period could be spent in a Migrant Worker Onboarding Centre (MWOC). As mentioned above, MWOCs would be the new quick-build dorms.

At first, Ethan was puzzled why workers were so interested in this issue, but he soon realised where they were coming from.

On their minds was this question: If, under the amended directive, they wouldn’t have to spend 14 days in a hotel but only the first few days, would they still have to pay $2,000 – $3,000?

Of course the answer should be that they shouldn’t have to pay anything at all. But the widespread chatter indicates that it is a general expectation that they’d have to pay.

In other words, Ashraf, Morut and Lami are not isolated cases. Out there, workers are seeing it as a general rule — they would be the ones paying for quarantine. This indicates that many employers must be demanding this.

Our reply to MOM is ready

Very likely, MOM, on reading this article, will ask TWC2 for the names of the three workers so that they can investigate the matter and take the employers to task.

If we get such a request, we will tell MOM that we will not identify the workers unless the workers themselves give us consent to do so. The chance of the latter happening is infinitesimal. A worker will know that if he identifies himself and his employer, he will surely lose his job.

At the root of the problem is a lack of victim protection or whistle-blower protection. Our policy-makers seem to give no consideration to the very strong possibility that the reporting worker will suffer retribution, and endure likely joblessness for many months while the investigation goes on.

Workers don’t even have any assurance that the investigation will result in the employer being held to account. As an example, read about Hossain’s and John Peter’s cases in the background article Migrant Burden. These two guys had evidence of their employers taking kickbacks, and months later, there is still no enforcement that anyone knows of.

This missing link — victim protection — leaves us with a vicious cycle. Workers hesitate to report violations. MOM launches few investigations, or MOM claims that the problem hardly exists since there are so few complaints. Employers gain confidence that they can misbehave with impunity.

And there you have it: A wonderful example of how a new directive — responsibility for the costs of quarantine for newly-arriving workers — announced in January and becoming a joke by March.