Foreword

This is a story of how someone profited from an abuse of the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM’s) In-Principle Approval (IPA) process. This someone applied for a Work Permit for a Bangladeshi worker without his consent; it was approved by MOM. When the worker asked that it be withdrawn, this someone demanded payment for doing so. Twice.

The demand for money wasn’t even done in a cloak-and-dagger way as most blackmail demands are. Instead, payment was to be made to a Singapore bank account. Whoever it was, that someone might not have felt the need to hide because it is within employers’ powers to apply for or withdraw IPAs — as provided for in MOM’s process. The only thing that may be of doubtful legality is asking for payment for the “favour” of withdrawal, but from TWC2’s observation about the effectiveness of enforcement, we can understand why employers don’t fear any action by MOM.

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

Rana was a loyal employee with L H Waterproofing Specialists Pte Ltd for six years. It’s his first job here, and he started at a salary equivalent to $18 a day. Over the years, he has had wage increases and in 2021, he was at a rate equivalent to $21 a day.

We say “equivalent to” because, strictly speaking, workers are monthly-rated, but many migrant workers from Bangladesh and India customarily think of their wages in terms of the daily rate. $18/day would probably be $468 per month; $21/day would probably be $546 per month.

A recent study by researchers from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy found that “working parents with two children aged two to 12 will need to each earn $2,906 a month” just for a “basic standard of living” (9 October 2021, TodayOnline, Parents with 2 children need to earn about S$5,800 to $6,400 monthly for basic standard of living: Study).

This roughly translates to about $1,500 a month for a single adult just to support himself. Rana’s salary is a far cry from that, even before considering that he has a family to support back home.

As one can see, despite the wage increments, Rana’s salary remained very low. He wasn’t unhappy with the work, nor with his superiors, but he hoped to earn more.

Bigger salary increase or he’d have to look for new job

As the expiry date for his Work Permit (13 November 2021) came into view, the boss asked Rana about renewal, just as he had done each year for the past six years. But this year, Rana said he wanted to use the opportunity to change employer.

As Rana recalls of that conversation, “Boss ask me, ‘Why you want to change? You long time work here.’” To that, Rana explained that the low salary was the problem.

Another $1 increase in the daily rate was offered but Rana felt that was still not enough. Expecting that the boss would not offer a larger increase, he reckoned that he’d have to use the ‘no-consent period’ to get a new job.

No-consent period

Migrant employees who cannot agree with their existing employers on renewal of their Work Permits enjoy a ‘no-consent period’ – wherein another employer may apply for a new Work Permit for the worker without need to get consent from the existing employer for the transfer. In September and October 2021, the prevailing 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.

“How did you come to know about this no-consent period?” TWC2 asks Rana.

“My friend tell me,” Rana replies. “He [used to] work same company, then change company.”

But where was Rana to find a new job? Rana spoke with his maternal uncle who was also in Singapore, though in a different company. The uncle thought that his company would have a vacancy, but some days later, it turned out that in fact that company did not have any spare ‘quota’ for hiring more migrant workers, such as Rana.

The Singapore government uses a complex formula for determining how many migrant workers a business can hire. Colloquially, this limit is called the ‘quota’.

Rana spoke with his boss again, and once more Rana asked for a bigger increase. At the back of his mind, he had also decided that after six years in Singapore, it wouldn’t be an altogether bad idea if, unable to get a new job, he ended up having to go home to Bangladesh.

“I say to boss, ‘if salary up, I continue. No up, I go back.’”

Not long after, the boss, having checked with the supervisor about Rana’s value as an employee, offered him a higher rate, equivalent to $24 a day. Rana accepted. In monthly terms, that should be about $624.

Renewal blocked

“I sign(ed) the renewal paper, then I do medical check-up,” recounts Rana of the next steps. However, bad news soon came. LH Waterproofing’s application to renew Rana’s Work Permit was rejected by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) because a new In-Principle Approval (IPA) had been approved for him.

“Who applied for this IPA?” TWC2 asks Rana.

“At first, I don’t know. I ask my uncle, but he say he also don’t know,” Rana replies.

“Did you apply at any other company for a new job? Did you speak to any agent?”

“No. I only talk to my uncle and my boss.”

Through a bit of sleuthing (“My uncle and I search the internet” – who says migrant workers aren’t tech-savvy?) they found out that the applicant was a certain Rechoice Engineering. They also found the company’s phone number and address.

Rana had never heard of them before. TWC2’s checks on this company too revealed additional surprises and we’ve put our findings into a separate article, as they illustrate yet another problem with MOM’s permit approval process. See What a choice company!

Payment demanded

Rana asked the person behind Rejoice Engineering to cancel the IPA. The mysterious person asked for $100 to do so. Rana reluctantly paid through bank transfer to a DBS bank account that was designated by this person.

By now, it was already 15 November, two days after expiry of Rana’s Work Permit – a fact that will have consequences later.

Yet, the IPA was not cancelled. The mysterious person wrote back to say cancellation was not an option on MOM’s online interface. In a separate conversation,  Rana was told to just join Rejoice. That was the last thing Rana wished to do. Below we image the statement by the mysterious person that cancellation cannot be done online by the employer.

This is patently untrue. As is stated on this page of MOM’s website,

If you’re a business employer cancelling your migrant worker’s IPA, you can do it using WP Online.

Rana knew this too and in a subsequent exchange of WhatsApp messages, told the person so. To no avail.

Perhaps this mysterious person was not the employer, but they couldn’t have been anyone else, since it was Rana who found them by looking up the company Rechoice Engineering. Rana knew of no employment agency involved. The IPA document said “N.A.” in the box “S’pore employment agency (E.A.)”

Rana went straight to the Ministry of Manpower to lodge a complaint and seek some advice. Recalling what he was told, “MOM officer tell me to go to [Rechoice] office and ask them to cancel the IPA.” He didn’t think it would be any use doing so since he had already asked – and paid $100 – to get them to withdraw the IPA, but he made his way to Rechoice’s business address anyway to try. He found a locked door. “Nobody inside,” he tells TWC2.

Rana then went back to MOM to say it was not a successful trip. He was then told to submit considerable documentation – something about proving that he had never wanted to join Rechoice — before MOM would consider helping him cancel the IPA. It is not clear why, when the man is right in front of you saying he does not want the job, officials still make it hard to take “No” for an answer.

Here is the advisory that Rana had on his phone, from MOM. It’s hard to read especially if you’re viewing this on a mobile device, so we’ll quote the relevant portion of the text below:

If this is a case of work permit application submitted without consent, please email us: mom_wpd@mom.gov.sg the following documents so that we can look into the request:

a. A signed letter stating the request nd the reson for the request

b. Documentary proof that this application was submitted without your consent (if any), and

c. A copy of your identification showing your personal particulars, e.g. passport

We will review the request….

Note how the ministry promises only to “review” the request, not to cancel the fraudulent IPA.

Needing help to write a letter in English — such are the demands made by MOM — Rana came to TWC2. We helped him draft it, and we also sent an email to the ministry to further alert them to the issue. We did not get any reply.

The contrast between how easy it is for an employer to expunge a job for a worker — just go online and click — and how bureaucratic and difficult it is for a worker to expunge a job he had not wanted — write a letter and submit documentary proof — speaks volumnes of bias and unfair treatment.

Repeated attempts to get MOM to act

“I go MOM many times,” says Rana. Finally, the MOM officer he was dealing with told him that the matter would be escalated to a senior officer.

No word for two days.

Then MOM told him they had to check with the Singapore Contractors Association, who operate a worker retention scheme and who should be able to job-match him with a new job if he’s accepted into the scheme. This made no sense to Rana. He wasn’t looking for a new job. He had LH Waterproofing waiting for him. We see here a bureaucracy operating like automatons.

Another two days went by and Rana decided he would go to MOM again otherwise there might be no progress.

This time, “MOM officer say ‘give me two more day. If [Rechoice] pick up my call, I will ask them to prove that the IPA was with your [Rana’s] consent. If company cannot prove, then MOM will cancel the IPA.’

“I no understand. I tell him I don’t want to work that company.”

One would think: Isn’t that enough? Rana still couldn’t fathom why MOM was refusing to respect his decision.

Second demand for $100

Is wasn’t long before the mysterious person WhatsApp’d Rana again asking for another $100 before he or she would cancel the IPA. We image the conversation here, beginning with the bank account holder’s name and account number.

We have added annotations in red to explain the implications from certain statements.

The WhatsApp exchange contains enough leads to commence an investigation, but as often is the case, what is lacking may well be the political will to act.

Rana didn’t pay this second demand for $100. He figured he was foolish to have paid the first time.

At last

Finally, on 3 December 2021, MOM told Rana that the IPA from Rechoice Engineering had been invalidated; he could go back to L H Waterproofing.

LH’s boss sent in a renewal request for the Work Permit. It was not successful. The reason? Rana had overstayed the expiry of his earlier Work Permit – it had expired on 13 November. A fine of $100 had to be paid before the renewal could go through. The boss promptly paid it for Rana, but the amount will be deducted from his future wages.

On 6 December 2021, Rana moved back to LH’s dormitory and resumed work.

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 input. In fact, as the story above shows, Rana was not even aware that Rechoice Engineering 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 or renew his permit.

Getting a malicious IPA overturned involves an incredible amount of labour by highly-paid civil servants, even when basic ethics is abundantly clear what should be done. As soon as a worker says he does not want a job, that should be the last word. Any less segues into forced labour territory — this time endorsed and enforced by the state.

Rather then waste resources running around to “review” and cancel fraudulent IPAs, it would be better if no IPA is issued in the first place without the worker’s consent. Systems-wise, the solution does not even need any manual intervention. 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 all will have one at the ready whenever they wish to change jobs.

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.

For first-time workers who have never worked in Singapore before and who have not had a chance to be issued SingPasses, a different solution will be required. We have described a possible solution for these new workers in the final section of the article Swindle, cheat and manipulate: so what can be done?