Foreword

Singapore’s management of migrant labour is similar to Arab States’ Kafala system, where the worker is under the control of a sponsor or employer. Among the many powers given to the employer is the right to consent or refuse consent for the worker to transfer to another employer. It’s almost as if the human being that is the worker is the property of the employer. If the employer does not want the worker anymore (and does not agree to a transfer), then the standard rule is that the worker has to be repatriated.

Workers thus fear losing the favour of their bosses and being sent home. Employers rather like cowed workers and many bosses have become quick to send workers packing at the slightest affront, replacing them with meek new arrivals, better yet if they are in debt — from having to pay recruitment charges — and thus even less likely to assert themselves.

The result, however, is that we see quite a lot of worker churn. In the larger interest of Singapore, this is a bad thing, because worker churn means a steady bleed of skills and experience with consequent loss of productivity.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has for some years been trying to tweak the system to give workers nearing the end of their Work Permit periods an opportunity to look for new jobs if they and their employers cannot agree on renewal of the permit without having to obtain consent from the employer. However, from the very restrictive and complicated way in which this policy is applied, it doesn’t appear as if the ministry’s heart is in it. Built into the policy are many ifs and buts, not to mention several other counter-processes that defeat the intent of the no-consent policy.

This story from Omar (not his real name) gives us a first-hand account of what he had to go through. At several points, the chance of a transfer slipped out of his grasp. His tale shows what the reality for a typical worker is. It’s one thing for MOM to point to their statement about a no-consent period as if it has solved the problem. It’s quite another for workers to convert theory into an actual new job.

As Omar’s Work Permit neared its expiry date of 15 September 2021, the Timekeeper asked him on behalf of management whether he would agree to renewal. In this company, which we shall call Company Alpha, the Timekeeper was evidently someone who helped with staff matters.

Omar told the Timekeeper, “If salary no up, no renewal.” He made it clear that he did not want to continue working unless there was a salary increase.

The Timekeeper conveyed Omar’s point to the company office. A little later, he came back to say that management had agreed to increasing Omar’s $26-per-day wage by $2. That would be a seven percent raise.

Actually, Omar was monthly-rated, but like many of his countrymen, he finds it simpler to think in terms of a daily wage.

Omar was then given a “piece of paper” to sign. It was probably an internal document agreeing to a renewal of the Work Permit, but he was not given any copy for his retention.

Then the manager said there would be no salary increase. Omar protested strongly, as did a few of his co-workers who were also nearing expiry of their Work Permits. They too had been hoping or asking for a raise, to keep up with inflation at the very least. They felt the manager’s about-turn was nothing but bad faith after they had been asked to sign renewal papers.

When the manager refused to budge, they withdrew their agreement for renewal.

No-consent period

Under the rules then in operation in August and September 2021, Omar would have a three-week window, from the 40th to the 21st day before permit expiry, to apply for a new job without having to obtain his employer’s consent.

Omar reached out to an old friend who used to work in Singapore but was now back in Bangladesh. This friend introduced him to a company which we will refer to as Company Beta.

“Did your friend ask you for any money?” we ask Omar, always acutely conscious of recruitment fees.

“No, no money. He my good friend,” replied Omar.

Omar spoke with Company Beta and they agreed to apply for a new Work Permit for him so that he could join them.

The next thing Omar knew, he was being confronted by the manager in Company Alpha, unhappy that he had applied for a new job elsewhere. Surely, this was Omar’s right since both parties had failed to agree on renewal. In Omar’s mind, his current employer could only have known about this move if MOM had told them.

He also got a call from ASMI — the Association of Singapore Marine Industries. ASMI is a federation of companies in the marine engineering sector. The person from ASMI called to ask him whether he had applied for a job elsewhere and why.

“I tell ASMI, company not agree salary up, so I don’t want renewal,” Omar recalls.

As for what role ASMI was trying to play, Omar had no idea.

Then Omar heard from Company Beta that their application for a Work Permit was rejected. It took a few more days for Omar to learn that the reason for rejection was because Company Alpha had refused to give consent.

We try to pin down whether consent should have been required because Omar seemed to have acted within his no-consent window. However, he is no longer sure of the dates and so we cannot come to a clear determination. TWC2 has seen other cases where although the worker acted within the no-consent period, the prospective employer was slow to file and thus only acted outside the window period. Of course, it does not help that the no-consent window period is so short.

Mysteriously extended

Not only was it strange (unethical?) that Company Alpha would hear of Omar’s application to join a new employer, even more mysterious was a one-month extension of his Work Permit. TWC2 was curious as to which party applied for the extension.

“Who told you about that?” we ask Omar.

“Nobody. I see extension on WorkPass app [on his mobile phone].”

“Was it Company Alpha that applied for an extension?”

“No. I think MOM.” But he does not explain why he thinks it was unilaterally extended by MOM. Perhaps it was through a process of elimination. It couldn’t have been Company Alpha, since they clearly did want him around. They had not been giving him any work since around the time he withdrew his agreement for renewal. Despite the permit extension, he was still not assigned any work.

Permit cancelled

A mere six days into the one-month extension, Company Alpha cancelled the Work Permit and bought him an airticket. This experienced worker who had ten years’ experience in Singapore was going to be lost to our economy. With borders largely closed, there was no way that he could come back for another job in the near future once he was sent home.

The flight would depart on 24 September 2021.

Omar’s flight ticket

Meanwhile, Omar was increasingly frustrated. The company’s actions seemed designed to thwart his chances of getting a transfer job. He decided that he was not going to be “nice” to the company anymore and that he would now surface a grievance he had held for some time. Over the entire period of employment, the company had deducted an amount for utilities from his monthly paycheck. The amount wasn’t large, and he had previously felt it wiser to bear the loss rather than speak up and possibly lose the job altogether. But now that the job was lost and, seeing how the manager had acted in bad faith over the promised salary increase, Omar felt this was the time to make an issue of the deductions.

So, when he reached the airport, he walked up to a police constable and said he wanted to file a salary complaint. The constable then said he could skip his flight, but should go to a police station to file a report instead. This didn’t sound quite right to Omar and he called TWC2. We told him to go to MOM.

At TADM

Omar was assigned a case officer at the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM), a unit that is for all practical purposes a conjoined Siamese twin of MOM. TADM handles salary claims.

The case officer noticed early on that Omar’s main preoccupation was to get the job at Company Beta. The salary deduction that he would be claiming for was secondary, and anyway didn’t add up to much, dollar-wise. The officer suggested to Omar that he (Omar) might wish to leverage the issue of the salary claim to get Company Alpha to consent to the transfer.

At no time did Omar get to understand why a consent letter was even needed.

In fact, his reaction to TWC2 was, “This company don’t want me. The Work Permit already cancelled. [They are] not my employer [anymore]. Why must get [their] permission for transfer?”

Nonetheless, he agreed with his TADM officer that the tactic was worth a try.

“Call boss many time, but no answer.” Omar reported to his TADM officer his lack of success in getting through. The officer agreed to try himself. Maybe the boss would pick up the phone if he did the calling.

Not long after, the officer told Omar he had managed to get through and the boss was agreeable to issuing a consent letter provided the salary claim was withdrawn. Omar hesitated. The boss had reneged on the promised salary increase; would he renege on this deal too?

But Omar really had no choice. He could see no way forward except to write off his claim, and then bear the risk of the boss not delivering. He reluctantly withdrew his claim.

The issue here is not only that of an unreasonable boss. The issue is also one of policy. MOM created policy that allows bosses to be unreasonable. All this would not have been a problem if no consent letter was needed.

Fortunately, a letter of consent came through. Perhaps the TADM officer made sure it would.

Omar then spoke to Company Beta and asked them to apply again for a Work Permit for him. This time, it was approved.

A TWC2 volunteer listened in to the interview as Omar recounted his tale. It sounded like a storyline from a videogame, he said, “where you have to slay dragons coming at you from all corners, just to get to your goal.”

As at the date of the interview, Omar had done his medical check-up and was waiting to move into Company Beta’s dormitory.