On 25 May 2021, Bangladeshi national Hawlader Md Saifuddin found that Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM) had revoked his S-Pass. Effectively, this meant that he could not continue working in Singapore, though he hadn’t done anything wrong.

Three days later, he learned that the revocation came about because his employer had failed to pay the levy for several employees. MOM thus penalised the company by making it ineligible to hire foreign workers. In reality, as is patently obvious, it is the workers who ultimately have to pay the price for their employers’ negligence through being thrown out of their jobs.

Saifuddin had only started on this job seven months earlier, in October 2020. He was the site engineer for Dreamcreations Furnishing, an interiors company.

When he showed up at TWC2, we noticed that he did not have any documentation to show his immigration status after his S-Pass was invalidated. We then had to help him get a Visit Pass, regularising an extension of his stay in Singapore so that he could look for another job.

Not long after, he also sought help with paying his rent. TWC2 put him on our rent assistance programme.

After several unsuccessful attempts — a number of interested employers were unable to hire him because they lacked the necessary quota for hiring foreign workers — Saifuddin eventually found a job with a waterproofing company. However, his relief was short-lived when he learnt that it would take three weeks for MOM to approve his prospective employer’s application for a work pass for him.

The wait wasn’t the real problem since he was on TWC2’s free meals programme and was getting housing support from us. The critical issue was the expiry date on his Visit Pass. He had only a week left. Appeals by his prospective employer, and even his former employer, to further extend his Visit Pass were denied.

Things then came to a head on the date of his departure.

It was only that morning that Saifuddin mentioned to two TWC2 volunteers that all attempts to further extend the Visit Pass had failed, and he was to board his flight that night. He also mentioned that he had a prospective employer but the application for a new work pass was still pending.

A volunteer immediately drove him to MOM to make a last-ditch effort to get his Visit Pass extended.

After waiting for an hour, the volunteer and Saifuddin met with an MOM officer, who said she could not extend Saifuddin’s Pass. When asked why not, she said it was beyond her pay grade. When asked what his options were, considering Singapore needed foreign workers and he wanted to remain working in Singapore, the officer offered to “expedite” the approval for his new work pass application, though this still didn’t mean it could be done within a day. When asked how that would help as Saifuddin was required to leave that night, she suggested that he remain as an overstayer. Taken aback at her suggestion, the volunteer asked about the implication for Saifuddin and his new employer.

She then replied that MOM’s system would allow the new work pass application to be processed and approved even though he would by then be an overstayer. All Saifuddin had to do was to discuss this option with his employer, specifically who would pay the fine, ranging from $100 to $500 depending on the length of the overstay. The officer assured a very anxious Saifuddin that it was not a criminal offence and was merely a simple matter of paying the fine and getting his Work Pass.

Our volunteer recalls very clearly that the officer was fully aware that if Saifuddin were to board the flight that same evening, he would not have overstayed. If he didn’t, he would be in violation by the next morning.

This ‘plan’ having come from an MOM officer’s mouth, Saifuddin was convinced it was the best way forward. Feeling hopeful again, Saifuddin agreed to try this approach.

Our volunteer then contacted the prospective employer and explained the situation. The employer was shocked that such a “solution” was even suggested, and by an MOM officer, no less.  (Actually, our own volunteer was equally shocked but she had to convey the message to the new boss nonetheless). Not wanting to have his firm associated with overstaying, the new boss employer promptly withdrew the work pass application.

Saifuddin had no choice but to leave for Bangladesh that night.

Whilst the response of the MOM officer to Saifuddin’s and our volunteer’s queries is indeed troubling, there is a more generous way to look at it. She might have been genuinely trying to help by sketching a route that other workers might have taken — even if it had not been the straight and narrow — since there was little else she could do to make the system more responsive.

The framing of the issue then becomes this: Why is the system so bad? Take, for example, these specific angles:

  • When an employer defaults on payment of his monthly foreign worker levy and employees’ work passes are revoked as a result, why are workers put into repatriation mode, instead of help-you-find-another-job mode? Especially as Singapore is desperately short of workers during the pandemic and more generally, we’ve said we need to retain skilled and experienced workers to improve productivity, this seems like a shoot-ourselves-in-the-foot policy.
  • When it takes three weeks to process a new work pass application, giving laid-off workers only 30 days before they must leave Singapore (albeit with the possibility of a slight extension) is almost designed to defeat any hope of successfully getting a new job.
  • How is a foreign worker to look for a new job quickly with the early days of a 30-day period when there is no easily accessible listing of job vacancies for them? The worker has to ask around one employer after another in succession to see if they have openings, and this takes too long. TWC2 has long proposed that Singapore should have a centralised listing of job vacancies (for which employers have quota) to make the job search process more efficient. It should be mandatory for employers with such vacancies to list their openings there, so that the listing is comprehensive.

In other words, although this may be a case of a civil servant going beyond her bounds, we should not let it detract from a necessary examination of the absurd straitjackets that policy makers have designed.