On 16 February 2021, Member of Parliament Gerald Giam asked the Minister for Manpower what happened to foreign construction workers whose work permits had expiry dates in the second half of 2020. Below is the transcript of the question and the minister’s reply taken from the official parliamentary report:
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Manpower (a) how many construction sector work permits had expiry dates falling between July and December 2020 (both months inclusive); and (b) of these, how many (i) expired without being renewed (ii) were renewed by employers later than the 40th day prior to their expiry date and (iii) were cancelled by employers later than the 56th day prior to expiry.
Mrs Josephine Teo: Eligible employers can renew the work permits of foreign construction workers from around the last 56 days or eight weeks of a work permit’s validity. Upon receipt of a renewal notice by MOM, the employer can renew the work permit at any time before its expiry. If the work permit is not renewed, the employer is responsible to repatriate the worker when the permit is cancelled or expires.
Foreign construction workers can transfer to a new employer any time during employment provided the current employer agrees. Between the 40th day and 21st day from expiry or the last 3 to 5 and a half weeks of the work permit, if the current employer has not already renewed, the worker can transfer to a new employer without the current employer’s agreement. This allows the worker to find new employment without having to leave Singapore. From the 20th day before expiry or the final three weeks of the work permit, as the current employer would already be making preparations to repatriate the worker and would have incurred additional costs, it would not be fair to allow for last-minute transfers without the current employer’s consent.
Of the 168,900 work permits from the construction sector expiring between July and December 2020, 105,900 (63%) were renewed by the employers, with 96,200 renewed in the last 40 days of the work permit. This is mainly due to workers being unable to leave their dormitories during the lockdown last year to complete the renewal process. Another 34,500 (20%) were issued with a new work permit under another employer.
Of the remaining, 28,500 (17%) were neither renewed nor re-issued with work permits, 7,900 (less than 5%) were cancelled in the last eight weeks of the work permit, while 5,100 (3%) expired. The others were mostly cancelled before the last eight weeks of the work permit.
These are the same numbers in tabular form:
Our comments about these numbers
Based on the latest figures we have, there were 280,500 construction sector work permit holders at the end of 2018. See our article Foreign construction workers continue to reduce, no improvement in productivity. Since then, the Ministry of Manpower changed their classification system — it is frustrating that when they change, they do not transition with continued reporting based on old classifications! — and now reports numbers for the combined construction, marine and process (CMP) sectors. There were 370,100 CMP work permit holders in December 2019 and 311,000 such workers in December 2020.
Josephine Teo’s reply spoke of “168,900 work permits from the construction sector expiring between July and December 2020″. Hopefully, she did not mis-speak and was really referring to construction, not CMP. If so, her figure would represent perhaps 60% of the number of construction workers, if we assumed the December 2018 figure (280,5000) to have remained more or less constant. On the other hand, her figure would be about 54% of the CMP figure at December 2020.
Either way, with about half of these (construction? CMP?) work permits expiring in a six month period, it strongly suggests that the typical duration of work permits in these sectors is just 12 months. Not the 2-year periods we more commonly see in other industry sectors.
Majority remained with their same employers
Nearly 63% whose permits approached expiry had them renewed. However, only about one in eleven got their renewals within the expected renewal window — between the 56th and 40th day prior to expiry date.
Over 90% of renewals took place after the countdown to expiry was less than 40 days. The minister said the reason was mostly innocent — “mainly due to workers being unable to leave their dormitories during the lockdown last year to complete the renewal process.” But at least some of them were already in the process of getting a transfer job. As the minister herself said, “Between the 40th day and 21st day from expiry… if the current employer has not already renewed, the worker can transfer to a new employer without the current employer’s agreement.”
From TWC2’s casework, we saw unhappy workers who were in the process of moving to a new job (presumably with better pay or working conditions) yet were trumped by their employers’ renewal of their permits. Exactly how many such workers there were among the 96,200 late renewals is not knowable from the bare numbers presented, but thousands or maybe even tens of thousands might be plausible.
Successful in getting a transfer job
About 20 percent of workers with work permits expiring in the second half of 2020 managed to transfer to a new job. This figure is really a mix of two groups, and it is a bit unfortunate that the minister did not distinguish between them. The first group would be those whose employers consented to a transfer. The other would be those who utilised the no-consent-needed window period (i.e. between 40th and 21st day before expiry) to find new jobs.
Nearly 30,000 construction (or perhaps CMP) workers went home. What is not clear from the numbers is how many wanted to go home, and how many would have wanted to stay on, but were repatriated by their employers.
More likely than not, the 5,100 who let their work permits expire and then went home, wanted to go home. They seemed not to have asked for renewal nor tried to look for another job — of which there must have been plenty available under the circumstances.
A good number of those whose work permits were cancelled more than eight weeks out from their expiry dates might also have wanted to go home. But here again, TWC2 believes, based on our casework, that a significant number — perhaps even half or more — had their jobs terminated prematurely and were sent back. Workers whose permits are cancelled do not enjoy a right to look for transfer jobs.
The 7,900 workers whose permits were cancelled within eight weeks of expiry date give rise to concern. Why would an employer cancel a work permit when expiry is anyway approaching? Why not let it expire normally, and along the way, allow the worker to look for a transfer job in the no-consent-needed window period?
Whilst a small minority of such workers might really have wanted to go home as quickly as possible and couldn’t even wait till expiry date, TWC2 believes — again, based on the cases we’ve seen — that employers were using cancellation to deprive workers to the opportunity to transfer.
How many workers did Singapore lose who might have wanted to stay on and work?
Since the data cannot capture what was in the workers’ minds, this is not an answerable question. We can make some guesstimates, however.
If we say 90 percent of all those whose work permits were cancelled with less than eight weeks to go before expiry really wanted to stay, and perhaps 50% of all those whose work permits were cancelled more than eight weeks prior to expiry, then we have an estimate of (0.9 x 7,900) + (0.5 x 15,500) = 14,860.
Or course we shouldn’t try to use precise numbers, but we think we can say that Singapore lost about 10,000 to 20,000 workers who might really have wanted to stay on and work but were sent home against their will in the second half of 2020.