Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng provided some useful figures when speaking in Parliament on 11 May 2021. For easy reference in future, we will capture the numbers here.

They are taken from the Straits Times report “S’pore firms affected by Covid-19 border curbs on migrant workers getting more help: Tan See Leng” of the same date.

We lost 60,000 CMP workers in 2020

Tan revealed that the number of work permit holders in the construction, marine and process (CMP) sectors declined in 2020 by nearly 60,000, or about 16 percent (see footnote 1).

TWC2 had noticed that by early 2021, some employers were desperately short of manpower even as they were asked to expedite completion of projects after a long suspension in the middle of last year. Most construction work was halted from April to August 2020. Borders were also closed.

Towards the end of 2020 and into the first quarter of 2021, a trickle of workers were allowed in from home countries, providing some relief. Tan See Leng revealed that between November last year and April this year, an average of 5,100 S-Pass and work permit holders per month were granted entry into Singapore. To avoid importing more infections than we could handle, the government wanted to control the pace of arrivals and employers had to seek permission to fly workers in even if IPAs (see Glossary) had been obtained.

5,100 S-Pass and work permit holders could not have been much help in alleviating the situation. (And it would have been more meaningful if he merely gave a number for work permit holders alone, since the earlier exodus number was for work permit holders.)

Mindless application of rules

To a question by Leong Mun Wai, Tan See Leng confirmed MOM’s policy: work pass holders are typically required to leave Singapore within two to four weeks after their pass expires or is cancelled.

In TWC2’s opinion, MOM’s robotic application of this rule even as we were facing an exodus made the situation worse. Through the 4th quarter of 2020 and into 2021, we saw numerous cases of distraught workers whose employers had cancelled their work permits well before expiry date. By MOM’s above-mentioned rule, they had to be repatriated.

These might be employers whose project pipeline dried up during the Covid-19 lockdown and so did not have need for so many employees anymore.

Meanwhile, other employers found themselves shorthanded. They were prepared to take in these excess workers, and the workers were wanting to go over. But — and this was a common report we heard from workers coming to us for help — the workers kept hearing the same refrain from MOM officials: that the only way they could get a chance at a transfer to a new job was if their existing employers gave consent for a transfer. It seemed like mindless application of an old rule that was completely unsuited to the times.

Many employers refused to grant consent. The reasons were many, but some that we’ve heard:

(a) Employer demanded a salary reduction, post-lockdown. Worker resisted because he knew he could get a similar or better offer elsewhere. So, employer cancelled his work permit, and refused to grant permission for transfer to punish the worker.

(b) Worker raised the issue of not having been paid any salary during the lockdown despite MOM’s advisories. Employer took offence and cancelled the work permit. Naturally, employer also refused to grant consent for transfer.

(c) Worker is newly brought after the start of 2021. Employer wanted to claw back the cost of quarantine with salary deductions though, according to MOM, employers are not permitted to recover this cost from workers. Worker resisted. Employer cancelled his work permit, making good on the threat to “send you home” if he did not accede to the payment demand.

There is a common thread — a strong desire to exercise punitive power over workers, together with the use of leverage (threat of cancellation of work permits) to debase salary and terms of employment.

30 percent return home each year

Of more general interest is the last factoid that Tan See Leng revealed. Each year, he said, about 30 per cent of all pass holders do not continue employment with their original employer and their passes expire or are cancelled.

That is quite a high turnover rate (see also footnote 2). What he didn’t reveal was how many of these 30 percent proceeded smoothly to a new job in Singapore, and how many were repatriated.

From the perspective of Singapore’s national interest, it’s fine if they left one employer to further their careers with another so long as their skills and experience are retained in Singapore. But it would be a shame if a large proportion of these 30 percent were repatriated. Although some do eventually come back to work here after a hiatus, the friction is grossly inefficient. Some will never return.

More seriously, if they had to go through agents to find subsequent jobs, they might end up in debt all over again.

A simple policy fix

It should be as obvious as day that employers should not be permitted to repatriate workers at will. Not only is spite a common motivator for cancelling work permits (spite should never be legitimised by State policy), to then let their actions flow over to hurt Singapore’s interest — exacerbating a shortage of foreign manpower — is mind-blowingly self-defeating.

Every migrant worker should get a reasonable chance at landing a new job without first having to go home.

Yet what looks like a simple fix would in Singapore be like moving mountains. Logic and common sense are up against deeply ingrained ideological biases among our policy-makers:

  1. Employers are responsible for the foreign workers they bring in, which has long ago morphed into:
  2. Employers shall have power over their workers so as to keep them in line.
  3. Employers have “use and dispose” rights over their workers.
  4. Therefore, before another employer can “take possession” of a worker, the existing employer must be willing to transfer his ownership rights.

In the migrant labour discourse, such a model is known as kafala system. Our deep attachment to it contributed to the manpower shortage we see today.

Don’t forget Special Pass holders

Although Special Pass holders are not numerous, repatriating them is also self-defeating. Special holders are typically workers who have been injured or have launched salary claims against their employers (the vast majority of claims are valid). Their employers typically cancel their work permits, and it is MOM who then issues them Special Passes for them to remain in Singapore till their cases are concluded.

A condition of the Special Pass is that the holder is not allowed to seek employment.

Injured workers recover with time. Doctors may even certify them fit to work even if the compensation claim is still dragging on. They should be permitted to start looking for new jobs once they are off medical leave. Salary claimants remain able-bodied throughout. There is no compelling reason why they should be banned from working for another employer just because they have an ongoing claim against a previous employer.

At TWC2, we find it quite astonishing to see fit Special Pass holders languishing in State-commanded joblessness, depending on charity for their meals, while employers are begging for more staff!

1. More specific numbers were revealed by the Straits Times in an earlier article. Straits Times, 24 April 2021, Dorm life one year on: Singapore workers adapt to safety steps but labour crunch an issue reported that “The total number of work permit holders in the construction, marine shipyard and process sectors, which are reliant on foreign labour, fell from 370,100 in December 2019 to 311,000 in December last year – a drop of about 15 per cent.”

2. It might be argued that 30% annual turnover is completely understandable as workers might want to go home to see their families. If they want to see their families, they should be given home leave; they shouldn’t have to quit their jobs to do so. In reality, many good employers do extend one or two months’ home leave to their employees every second or third year. Migrant workers shouldn’t have to choose been their jobs and their families.

Mr Guo said TWC2 has seen a huge number of cases involving problems with transfers and this has been the No. 1 concern among the inquiries it has received.

He said some employers have deliberately obstructed transfers by cancelling the workers’ work permits and repatriating them before they can make the switch.

“Effectively, it’s a lose-lose situation,” he said. “Singapore loses these productive workers when we already do not have enough workers. For the worker, he not only loses the opportunity (to earn more) but is also being sent home.”