In a written reply dated 5 July 2021 to Member of Parliament Louis Ng, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said that between 2016 and 2020, MOM looked into an average of 960 cases per year for kickback offences.

Meaning of ‘kickback’

We believe MOM’s use of the term ‘kickback’ is similar to TWC2’s — a demand for payment made by an employer or representative of an employer to an employee. We do not include within this term payment demands made by recruitment intermediaries.

Where there is some doubt is whether MOM considers a demand for payment by a manager or supervisor to be equivalent to a demand by an employer. Demands by managers and supervisors are common, but it is impossible to tell in most cases whether they’re out to enrich themselves personally or they’re sharing the spoils with the boss. TWC2 considers these to be kickbacks too, because from the perspective of the worker, the effect is the same: Pay up in order to get or keep the job.

Gleaning context from the rest of the statement, MOM seemed to be stating this figure — which is high, representing about four new complaints per working day at the ministry — to suggest how vigilant they are on this matter.

However, TWC2’s reading is quite the opposite. A high figure is nothing to be proud of. It only shows that there exists a systemic problem affecting a large number of employees. One pictures MOM running around swatting flies rather than looking at broader, fundamental solutions.

Further numbers revealed by MOM’s statement are even more embarrassing.

Out of these 960 investigations a year, an average of 102 employers were taken to task. That’s just 10.6 percent. In other words, nearly 90 percent of investigations go nowhere. Like swatting flies, there’s a lot of arm swinging, but very few flies caught.

It’s quite striking how MOM glosses over this low number. In fact, MOM doesn’t even provide the “10.6 percent” figure in its statement. We have to calculate it for ourselves. Instead, MOM’s reply to MP Louis Ng quickly pivots to how these 102 cases were disposed of.

about 80% of them were issued with warnings or composition fines while the remaining 20% were charged in court. For the cases that are prosecuted, about 90% were successfully convicted.

But these numbers refer to the 102 cases “taken to task”. No further details were provided about the approximately 858 cases a year that were not taken to task; we can reasonably conclude that no further action was taken.

We think ‘960’ understates the scale of the problem

The figure of 960 “investigations” per year may in fact understate the problem. Over the years, TWC2 sees a steady drip-drip of workers telling us that they have raised the matter of kickbacks with MOM but the response from the frontline staff there was something along the lines of “we cannot do anything about it until you bring us proof”. In short, workers are told to collect their own evidence before MOM would “investigate”. Many workers have also reported being told by MOM’s frontline staff that unless there is documentary proof of the kickback demand or payment, nothing can be done. It’s as if MOM officers live in a world where demands for corrupt payments are carefully documented, receipts given, leaving a solid paper trail.

“Of course, boss ask for cash,” said a worker to us recently. We’ll call him Arshad because he does not want to pursue this matter anymore since he had lost his job anyway (for unrelated reasons).

“Boss not so stupid. In fact, boss even say, ‘money — you don’t give me directly, you give to Maniam’.” Maniam was Arshad’s supervisor, who was thus serving as the bag man for the boss.

When Arshad went to MOM to complain about this payment extracted out of him, Arshad recalls that the “MOM lady” he saw there told him something along the lines of “this problem, MOM cannot solve because I [Arshad] not have proof’.”

Getting agitated, Arshad adds: “This kind of thing, how to prove? When boss ask for money, he only talking,” he says, emphasising that such kickback requests are always verbal, not even on phone messages. “WhatsApp message also not writing.”

Explaining that the boss normally uses WhatsApp to give work instructions, Arshad continues: “Boss everything send WhatsApp to me. Today go where, do what job, tomorrow go where. Swab test, what date, what time. All WhatsApp.

“But [when it comes to] pay money, no WhatsApp. Only talking. Boss not so stupid.

“Like this, how to prove?”

Arshad’s complaint couldn’t possibly be among the 960 cases investigated because as Arshad recalls, the MOM lady didn’t even take down any details from him.

“This case, MOM sure not investigate. MOM lady never even writing.”

See also our 28 Feb 2021 post Straits Times’ Migrant Burden: background and commentary. It refers to a video documentary made by the Straits Times in which two workers — a Hossain (not his real name) from Bangladesh and John Peter Ayyavu from India — show the reporter the evidence they have of kickbacks demanded from them by their employers.

Despite this, both cases went nowhere. The last we heard from MOM was that in both instances there was “insufficient evidence” to do anything.

Change of employer

Louis Ng raised the matter again in the parliamentary sitting of 27 July 2021. You can see the news story in Channel NewsAsia: About 960 cases of kickback offences investigated a year by Manpower Ministry. There is also a video clip giving Senior Minister of State Koh Poh Koon’s oral reply at this link.

The text version of Koh’s oral reply can be found at this link on MOM’s website.

This assurance by Koh is worth noting:

“To encourage migrant workers to come forward to report kickbacks early without fear of reprisal from their employers, MOM will facilitate change of employment for those who wish to continue to work here in Singapore,” said Dr Koh.

“MOM will also refer affected migrant workers to selected employment agencies, which are committed not to charge these workers any fees for the job placement.”

— Channel NewsAsia, 27 July 2021, About 960 cases of kickback offences investigated a year by Manpower Ministry

The above certainly represents progress and is welcome.

At the same time, it raises more questions. Does MOM’s assurance that workers who “come forward to report kickbacks” apply to any and every one who reports kickbacks or does it only apply to those cases where MOM has imposed a penalty or charged the employer in court? These cases, as discussed above only account for 10.6 percent of the total number of cases “investigated”.

If the answer is “no”, and the Change of Employer option is only given to those whose employers are taken to task, two questions follow:

1. How does this “encourage”?

As it is, the odds are heavily stacked against a worker filing such a complaint. He will definitely suffer retribution by the employer, but 90% of the time, MOM’s investigation will go nowhere. If 90% of the time, he won’t get any protection from MOM, how can such an assurance “encourage migrant workers to come forward”?

2. When?

Investigation typically takes a while. Even if his case is eventually one of the 10.6 percent where the employer is penalised or prosecuted, is the worker then made to wait in limbo without the right to seek a new job while the investigation is ongoing?

If the answer is “yes”, which means that any worker who files a complaint then gets a Change of Employer option — and which is the plain meaning from Koh’s words — what about the possibility of false or malicious complaints?

While we don’t think it is common, this can happen, as we’ve discussed in the article (albeit about domestic workers) Two more maid abuse cases come before the courts. In one of the cases discussed in that story, a judge found that a domestic worker lodged a false complaint about abuse when (as the court found) she really wanted a transfer.

What does a systemic solution look like?

The answer to the above question is a no-brainer. Extorting kickbacks is a tempting option for employers when they have control over the fate of workers. Control is the enabler, and therefore dealing with the issue of control is where any real solution begins.

From the many cases we’ve heard from workers over the years, these would be the typical threats made by bosses or their representatives:

Said to existing employees: Pay up if you want to keep your job or we will cancel your work permit and send you home.

Said to workers ending one job and hoping to transfer to another job within a two-week window they are given: Pay up or we will cancel the In-Principle Approval so that you won’t be able to start on this job, and you won’t have time left to look for another one before having to go home.

Said to workers outside Singapore hoping to start a new job here: Pay up or we will not apply for an In-Principle Approval for you, which will leave you up the creek, since there is no easy way to find where another job is — there is no universal job portal for potential workers to see where vacancies are — and the next potential employer might even ask for more.

The systemic solution is to free workers from such threats. If bosses threaten to cancel work permits and send workers home, the solution is to take away the power from employers to repatriate workers and give workers a reasonable chance (e.g. 90 days) to find a new job.

If bosses threaten to cancel or not apply for an In-Principle Approval unless workers pay up, then the solution is to make it easy for workers to turn down such ridiculous job offers and look for other jobs. If a worker is already in Singapore, he should also be freed from any threat of repatriation and given a reasonable time to find another job.

Making it easy for workers to find another job is why TWC2 has long advocated a universal portal (or at least a few comprehensive portals) where all work permit jobs must be listed. Better yet if the job application process should also be conducted through the portal to make it hard for employers to make illicit demands on the side. In negotiations for the job, there should be no side conversations between employer and worker outside the portal channels.

Take away control by employers, and we take away the opportunity for graft.

What is definitely not a solution is for MOM to keep raking in more and more complaints, doing more and more work. A good solution is a self-correcting system, not one that requires continuing intervention to catch violations and fix defects.

Job mobility for workers prevents perjury

A commonly-relied on way for employers to fend off MOM investigations is to get the other employees to lie.

This thwarts MOM’s typical investigation method, which is to ask other employees of the same company whether they too have faced demands for kickbacks. TWC2’s understanding is that MOM uses such evidence for its corroborative value after having received a complaint.

The logic behind this method is sound. If an employer is wont to ask for kickbacks, he is not going to demand such payment from only one employee; he is likely to demand it from all his vulnerable employees.

However, it is very easy for employers to threaten the remaining workers with cancellation of their work permits and repatriation if they do not do the boss’ bidding and lie to MOM. Workers are then made to say to MOM, “No, no, boss is a good man. He did not ask me for any money.” And here is the thing: the more the boss extracted from the other workers in the first place, the more likely these workers will do as asked by their employer and perjure themselves before MOM. They would hardly want to write off the large sums they had initially paid to get their jobs.

So, giving all workers the right to resign and seek another job is also useful in tackling such perversion of the investigative process. When workers don’t have to fear the sack and immediate repatriation is when investigation becomes more effective.

But then of course, when all workers have the right to resign and seek another job, is also when the incidence of kickbacks is likely to decline — bosses lose their power over workers.