This is a story of how an employer obstructed and sabotaged a worker’s transfer by means of the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM’s) In-Principle Approval (IPA) process. It had all the hallmarks of retaliatory action by a boss against a worker who turned down renewal of the permit.

Retaliatory action against a worker wanting to leave employment is obviously motivated by wanting to keep the worker in the company aganst his will, and such motivation has the stink of forced labour.

In the closing note, TWC2 will provide a recommendation for an improvement to MOM’s IPA system to prevent such abuses in future.

Ahmed Mohammad Dulal has worked in Singapore for a total of eleven years. For the last two years, he was a lorry driver for Alif Engineering Pte Ltd.

While being a driver means he is generally not toiling in the sun, his hours are very long.

“Every day I start at 6:45 or 7 am.,” he tells TWC2. I drive to three or four place,” he says, explaining his morning routine. He picks up workers from three or four dormitories, ferrying them to different work sites. Apparently, the company has quite a number of workers apparently. “Total have about 60 worker[s],” he continues, “and company have three lorry” to fetch them to work.

Just as, being the driver, he would be the first to start work each day, he was also the last to finish. “At night, I must take all the worker back to the different dormitor[ies]. Drive to three or four work place[s] and send [workers] back.”

“Every day, I finish about 10pm,” but there are times when projects need to be rushed to meet deadlines and so, “if workers work later, I finish later. About midnight.”

Dulal says his basic salary was $1,600 a month. The company treats this as an ‘all-in’ salary, meaning that his overtime hours are not compensated.

“Holiday I also work, but no extra [wages] for that.”

Claiming for proper payment for overtime hours, in his view, would be difficult because the company had no system for recording the extra hours worked.

Could not agree on Work Permit renewal

About two months prior to the expiry date of his Work Permit with Alif Engineering (21 November 2021), the boss asked Dulal about renewal of the permit.

“I ask boss, ‘Can give my salary up?’”

According to Dulal, the boss’ reply was a firm negative. “Boss reply me: ‘[Even] if you good worker also I cannot give higher salary for you, because all worker must be same.’” It’s an interesting company policy that essentially means, in the interest of equality, the company will not reward workers for better performance.

Dulal thinks that cannot be true. “Other driver, he have higher salary,” he says to TWC2, but admits it’s only hearsay since he really doesn’t know what the other driver gets.

He told the boss he did not want renewal of the Work Permit with this company. As later events would show, this didn’t go down well, though the boss’ initial reaction to Dulal’s decision was the correct one. “Boss then say: ‘You can apply other company’.”

‘No-consent’ period

The Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM’s) prevailing policy then was that migrant employees who could not agree with their existing employers on renewal of their Work Permits would enjoy a ‘no-consent’ period – wherein another employer could apply for a new Work Permit for the worker without need to get consent from the existing employer for the transfer. In October 2021, the policy was that the no-consent period would be the twenty days between the 40th day to the 21st day before the permit’s expiry date.

Through a friend’s recommendation, Dulal found an interested employer, Tescon Integrated Pte Ltd. Tescon put in an application for a new Work Permit for Dulal.

Blocked by another In-Principle Approval (IPA)

For days, Tescon’s application remained in limbo, and finally when either Dulal or Tescon asked the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), they were told that another application had also been put in for Dulal, this one from a company called Alif Fire Protection. It’s a different company from Dulal’s previous employer Alif Engineering (as seen from their different corporate registration numbers) but according to Dulal, they are owned by the same boss – as the company names suggest.

Apparently, the application by Alif Fire Protection had been approved by MOM, thus blocking the application by Tescon.

“But I never apply to Alif Fire Protection,” Dulal tells TWC2. “I don’t want to work for this boss.” He was even less keen to continue working under the supervisor assigned over him, though what exactly the nature of the friction was between the two, we do not venture into in our conversation.

In a 2012 publication (link), the International Labour Organisation (ILO) laid out indicators of forced labour, among which are coercion and intimidation. Retaliation is a manifestation of coercion and intimidation.

Abuse of vulnerability is also an indicator of forced labour. A migrant worker like Dulal cannot work here unless MOM issues him a Work Permit, and this vulnerability is being exploited here by the two Alif companies.

Whilst this story is about the impact of the employer’s actions on one worker, the bigger picture is the intended message sent to all other workers under the same employer, which is that any attempt at transferring out of the company will be likewise obstructed and sabotaged. The company can therefore be said to be engaging in actions leading to forced labour across the board, courtesy of MOM’s one-sided permit approval process.

On another note, as ILO says in its above-mentioned publication, “The credibility and impact of the threats must be evaluated from the worker’s perspective”, so this story, like many others on this website, is written from the victim’s point of view, not the authorities’.

The Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM’s) application process for Work Permits does not provide any role for workers. Employers and employment agents can unilaterally put in an application for a permit even without the worker knowing about it. MOM has no system for always checking with workers if they really agreed to the job and to the terms of employment inputted by employers into MOM’s server.

Yet, once an In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit (IPA) has been issued by MOM, it blocks the worker from any other job. No other employer can apply for a Work Permit for him. It was obvious to Dulal that the Alif Fire Protection IPA was for the sole purpose of retaliation against his decision not to agree to renewal of his permit.

Dulal then contacted MOM and asked how he could overturn the In-Principle Approval (IPA) that had been issued to Alif Fire Protection. He was told to persuade the Alif boss to cancel it.

This is a bit strange because TWC2 knows that MOM itself can cancel it on the request of the worker. Dulal seemed not to have been told that. Instead, as Dulal recalls, “MOM say, ‘if you cannot cancel it (i.e. if you cannot get Alif to cancel it), MOM cannot approve Tescon’.” Dulal’s understanding was that it was entirely dependant on him being able to persuade the Alif boss to cancel the Fire Protection IPA.

How the boss could be so persuaded is an open question. If the motive was to retaliate, why would the boss agree to withdraw the IPA? Any worker in Dulal’s position would fear that monetary greasing might be asked for. If so, this is the natural consequence of MOM’s policy.

Still, Dulal tried, but faced difficulty reaching the boss. As an alternative, “I talk to manager, ‘Why make new IPA without my permission?’ but manager only say he will talk to boss.” When the manager did not get back to him within a reasonable time, Alif tried again to reach the boss and was successful this time. The boss agreed to cancel the Fire Protection IPA, or so Dulal thought.

Serial rejections

With the delay, or maybe for some other reason, Tescon was no longer interested in hiring Dulal. He had to look for another employer willing to hire him. Fortunately, he found Universal M&E Pte Ltd, who put in an application for him.

“Thirty minutes later, MOM reject,” says Dulal. The Fire Protection IPA had apparently not been cancelled as promised. “I very tension.”

“I call boss again. He say again that he will ask his office to cancel the Fire Protection IPA.”

Giving it a week for the cancellation to be done, Dulal asked Universal to re-apply. Once more, it was rejected.

It’s not clear whether this latest rejection was because the Fire Protection IPA was still standing in the way or whether it was because, by this time, Dulal was outside the no-consent period. The latter seems more probable from the timeline, because by this point it was already 1 November 2021. Dulal’s Work Permit was expiring on 21 November, only 20 or 21 days away.

If this was the case, then Dulal would need the previous employer’s consent for any transfer.

Consent for transfer

Once more Dulal rang his boss. This time, the boss said he would issue a letter consenting to a transfer. The key sentence in the letter was

We, Alif Engineering Pte Ltd has given consent to transfer the following worker to company, Universal M & E Pte Ltd.

By naming Universal in the letter, it was made into a non-transferable consent letter, i.e. it could only be used by Dulal to switch to Universal, not to any company of his choice. It also indicated that Alif was aware which company Dulal wanted to go to, thus opening the possibility of Alif sending a confidential adverse report about Dulal to Universal if it so wished. We don’t know if that happened, but what happened next was, to say the least, interesting.

Waiting to join Universal M&E

Dulal passed the consent letter to Universal so that the company could add it to its appeal to have the application (for a Work Permit) approved.

Days passed and neither Dulal nor Universal heard from MOM. Meanwhile, Dulal was still employed by Alif, but as the permit expiry date of 21 November came closer, he got really anxious.

On 10 November, Dulal decided to approach MOM again to find out what was happening. The officer said he would check. Finally, “3pm same day, officer call me,“ recalls Dulal. “He say ‘everything settle already’. He say Universal must apply again.”

As for what exactly had needed to be “settled” is unclear, though it does suggest a horribly inflexible bureaucratic system at the ministry that needs a lot of labour intensive work-arounds to arrive at a simple result.

As requested, Universal applied again and seven days later (17 November) it was finally approved. Dulal looked forward to joining his new employer on the 22nd.

Transfer aborted

On Monday, 22 November, Alif Engineering asked Dulal to show up at the company office; he assumed it was for the purpose of departure formalities. Dulal arrived at 10am, his bags all packed, but was told to wait.

A little over two hours later, he got a call from Universal. The new employer told him something about how they have since filled the vacancy with a Malaysian worker and didn’t want to hire Dulal anymore.

As he tells TWC2 this, Dulal adds, “Boss called Universal and say my attitude no good, that’s why [Universal] cancel my IPA.” However, he can offer no proof of this claim – which understandably would be difficult to prove anyway since Dulal couldn’t have been party to any such conversation. Dulal’s suspicions, even if they amount to no more than that, is entirely plausible, though, given the history of the Alif boss’ actions.

Seeing how the requirement to obtain an existing employer’s consent for transfer (outside a no-consent period) can be abused by employers keen on retaliation, it can easily be argued that Singapore has created a regulatory regime that enables forced labour.

TWC2 has long argued for abolition of this requirement for consent. Workers should have a right to remain in Singapore a further 90 days after the end of any job (regardless whether the end came through resignation, termination or permit expiry) to look for a new job without need to get the existing or previous employer’s consent.

Straight away, Dulal marched off to MOM. “MOM say cannot help. MOM say I must ask boss for one-month Special Pass.”

This is where some background is necessary.

Between October and November, policy changed. Whereas in October, the no-consent period was between the 40th and 21st day before expiry of the Work Permit, after 8 November 2021, the no-consent period would be the 30 days after expiry of the Work Permit, provided the boss agreed to continue employment of the worker for those 30 extra days. See also our recent article on this policy change.

We surmise that MOM was telling Dulal that he could enjoy a second no-consent period provided Alif Engineering agreed to keep him on for a further 30 days. That said, the new policy said the 30-day period should be an extension of the Work Permit, whereas Dulal’s report suggested to us that the MOM officer said “Special Pass”. However, it is more than possible that Dulal misheard.

Unlike a Work Permit, a Special Pass is not a work pass, but it means that the employer remains responsible for housing, food and medical care of the migrant.

On Wednesday, 24 November, Dulal finally managed to get hold of his boss to ask for an extra 30 days. The boss asked Dulal to discuss this with the supervisor – the very supervisor that Dulal did not like. Because of this, Dulal decided not to call but to speak to MOM instead.

On Friday, 26 November, Dulal reached MOM again (on Zoom). After describing “everything” that has happened, the officer said he’d call back. He did as promised and this time asked Dulal what he really wanted. Of course, Dulal was clear in his mind. He wanted to continue working in Singapore, but not at Alif Engineering.

The officer obviously got to work on the boss as he called Dulal one more time the same day. “This time, the officer say ‘all settle already’,” Dulal tells TWC2. As before, what ‘all settle’ means remains unclear.

Re-employment unacceptable

“Then boss call me,” continues Dulal, “and he say ‘come at 6pm and get Special Pass’.” Your correspondent notices that Dulal is still referring to getting a Special Pass.

Dulal arrived at the company office at 6pm as requested. The boss was not there and he was told to wait. He waited for two-and-a-half hours. “After more than two hours, boss come at 8:24pm. He come with three friend and they go inside office talking.”

“Then he ask me go out and buy dinner for them.”

This part of story is not directly related to the main narrative about transfers and IPAs, but Dulal clearly wants to include it to emphasise the indignity slapped on him when the boss treated him as some kind of servant boy.

“I wait some more and [only] past 9:30pm, he ask me go inside his office.”

There, the boss told Dulal that his Work Permit had been renewed and he should resume work the next morning. For the next 30 days however, Dulal would be just a general construction worker, not a driver. Dulal objected and said he would continue only as a driver, not as a general worker.

“Next day, the Permit [was] cancelled.”

SCAL scheme

Dulal reached out again to MOM. This time, he was told about the retention scheme run by the Singapore Contractors Association (SCAL), which can help match him to a new job. We have a recent article on the experiences of six workers on this scheme, providing more detail about how it works. Dulal agreed to join the retention scheme.

“30 minutes later, SCAL call me.” SCAL asked Dulal whether the wanted to continue working in Singapore. “I say I want.”

SCAL then sent him via SMS the terms and conditions of the scheme, which he agreed to. Here are the WhatsApp messages that Dulal received:

Do these conditions come perilously close to being enablers of forced labour too?

But they didn’t immediately have a bed for him in their lodgings, so they told Dulal to remain where he was (at Alif’s dorm) until a bed was assigned. Meanwhile, we believe SCAL also spoke with Alif to ensure that they would not kick him out of their dorm.

Looking up

It was only on 3 December 2021, two weeks after his Work Permit officially expired, that Dulal received his last salary and got his passport back. Retention of personal documents such as passports is also an indicator of forced labour.

Recalling what he had been through during the past two months, Dulal says “My boss many problem make for me. I [have to] go rounding rounding,” describing the way he was made to run about in circles. He also does not feel, except towards the end, that he got the support he expected from MOM. It proved very hard to get the malicious IPA from Alif Fire Protection cancelled because “MOM not believe me”.

Nonetheless, by early December, things were looking up, but Dulal has one more indignity to recount. The morning after joining the SCAL scheme (but staying in Alif’s dormitory) the supervisor came to him to tell him to vacate the bed.

“He say new man coming and must have my bed. I say ‘Then I sleep where?’ and he say ‘You sleep on floor.’”

In truth, there were spare beds in the dorm and despite that altercation, Dulal simply moved to another bed, but why the new worker couldn’t be put into the spare bed – why Dulal had to be told to vacate his and sleep on the floor – remains a mystery which perhaps only employers with abuse on their minds can fathom.

On 7 December, SCAL finally had an available bed in their lodgings and Dulal moved over, free at last from the clutches of Alif Engineering.

Closing note

The defect in MOM’s IPA system lies in the way employers or agents can simply put in an application for a Work Permit, and MOM approves the application without ever referring to the worker for his agreement. In fact, as the story above shows, Dulal was not even aware that Alif Fire Protection had obtained an IPA over him.

Once a malicious application has been approved, no other employer can make a Work Permit application for the same worker, thus preventing the worker from getting another job of his choice.

The solution is not difficult. Simply put, it is to ensure that employees can see the details of the application (including the terms of employment entered by the prospectve employer into the same online form) and have the option to agree to them.

All existing Work Permit holders should be issued with SingPasses – Singapore’s system for digital identities when accessing government servers – and workers should be required to log in to MOM’s server to indicate consent to any Work Permit application before one is approved.

For efficiency, SingPasses should be automatically issued to workers alongside their Work Permits so that they will all have one at the ready.

Even if a former worker has returned home but wants to come back to Singapore to work — he should have been issued with a SingPass while he was here — he should be able to log in from home to accept or reject any proposed IPA.