As Singapore comes out of Covid-19 restrictions, the entry of migrant workers for the construction, process and marine industries is being ramped up. First indications, however, are that the long-standing problems of exorbitant recruitment fees and abusive employer behaviour are returning with a vengeance too.

Tan See Leng, Minister for Manpower, told Parliament on 10 January 2022 that

A monthly average of … 18,000 from the CMP sectors entered in November and December 2021, compared to a monthly average of 2,000 and 3,000 respectively between May and October 2021 when travel restrictions and tightened entry approvals were in place.

We recently met with two workers who had arrived in Singapore in December 2021 and January 2022 respectively.

Shayak (not his real name) arrived in December — one of the 18,000 mentioned by the Manpower Minister in the quote above. He is an experienced worker who had been in Singapore for most years since 2008, but in July 2020 when the pandemic in the dormitories was at its height, he went home to Bangladesh.

Just before the new year, he returned here. For this latest job, he had to pay his recruiter $3,500 in cash.

Dipangkar (not his real name) is at the opposite end of the experience spectrum from Shayak. When the 22-year-old came to Singapore in January 2022, it was his first time here. He paid a total of $10,000, made up of two components: $6,000 for a four-month basic skills course at the training centre in Dhaka and $4,000 paid to a recruiter in Bangladesh.

Workers in short supply during the pandemic

There was a period from April 2020 to fourth quarter 2021 when border closures led to a shortage of migrant workers in the construction, process and marine sectors. We wrote extensively about how employers with projects to complete were starved of manpower while other employers with little work to offer were sending their workers home. We said Singapore’s overall interest required us to retain these workers and not repatriate them. They should be transferred to employers needing extra hands, we wrote.

Some lucky workers who had been laid off by their no-more-work employers were indeed able to get consent from their bosses for a transfer rather than be sent home. We noticed that unlike in the past, these transfer workers generally did not have to pay for their new jobs. Obviously, the reversal of the supply-demand equation benefitted these guys.

But if we ever thought this would be the new normal, we would have been fooling ourselves. There was never any doubt that as soon as borders reopened and employers did not need to restrict themselves to the miniscule transfer pool to hire workers, the bad habits of excessive recruitment fees and kickbacks would return.

Exactly as we foresaw, the cases are now streaming into TWC2.

Readers who are familiar with our work will know that workers don’t come to us only to report recruitment fees. Generally, they come because something has gone wrong at work.

Windfall from recruitment fees and the revolving door

Yes, you guessed it. Shayak and Dipangkar – still new in their jobs – were already having problems with their employment. This illustrates the return of another longstanding feature of Singapore’s migrant worker landscape – insecurity and instability, sometimes coupled with abusive labour practices.

One month after his arrival in Singapore, Dipangkar was diagnosed with an infectious disease. It is eminently curable and once put on medication, he is no longer infectious. After two weeks of medical leave, he should be able to return to work.

Instead, the employer cancelled his Work Permit and bought a flight ticket to send him home. This is reminiscent of the pre-Covid habit of “revolving-door recruitment”. As soon as a worker becomes the slightest bit inconvenient, he is disposed of like litter and a new one recruited. Some employers even relish the prospect of a handsome windfall from the replacement worker’s recruitment fee.

From what we know so far, the employer has not covered Dipangkar’s medical expenses so far and has been evasive whether the costs will ultimately be reimbursed to Dipangkar.

Singapore law requires employers to bear Work Permit holders’ medical costs – that’s the whole point of the mandatory requirement for employers to buy medical insurance.

Shayak’s problem is different from Dipangkar’s. In Shayak’s case, we don’t see that the employer is behaving badly. Instead, it’s a case of the company running out of work and having to lay workers off. Nonetheless, for Shayak, it’s still very bad news. It is only two months into his job for which he paid $3,500 – money he has not recovered from earnings.

Shayak’s example illustrates the insecurity and instability faced by workers in the construction industry. It also shows how hard it is for Singapore to retain and upskill workers when there is so much churn, and it is why TWC2 has argued for exceptionally pro-active policies to support and incentivise retention and upskilling. It’s not something that can be left to market forces.

Fortunately, Shayak’s employer has consented to him seeking a transfer job rather than sending him home. In the end, Shayak was lucky to have been successful in getting a subsequent job. Many other workers are not so lucky to have an understanding boss or success in getting another job.

Employment violations return

The third case we’re writing about here isn’t a post-pandemic arrival. However, it is a useful reminder of the endemic labour abuses Singapore should be ashamed of, and that make retention and upskilling such a pipe-dream.

After about 20 months with his current employer, Mobarak (not his real name) suddenly found his Work Permit cancelled. No reason was given to him. He was not even given the statutory one week’s notice or salary in lieu. It’s as if the employer does not feel that the law applies to them.

Mobarak suspects that it might be related to the medical bills he incurred when he had back problems. The company refused to cover those costs – once again, despite the statutory obligation to do so.

When borders were closed, a worker like Mobarak would have been a precious asset and an employer might think twice before cancelling a Work Permit. But now that replacements can be brought in, there is apparently no need to be a fair employer.

Mobarak also reported problems with underpayment of salary, though our caseworkers did not have the opportunity to go through his claims with a fine-toothed comb. This was because Mobarak seemed too dejected and demoralised about working here; he basically just wanted to go home and not make a fuss, his right to justice notwithstanding.

Despite our explaining to him the salary claim process and the possibility of a transfer, he decided to go home instead.

It is easy to say that his decision to forego his rights is ultimately his choice, and is no reflection on Singapore. That would be too easy a stance, for whether a person chooses to forego his rights depends on how difficult it may be to enforce those rights. When we’ve made the process arduous, we shouldn’t be blaming the victim.

Since there are many other articles at this site about salary claims, here is not the place to explain at length the difficulties of the salary claim process beyond pointing out that the authorities demand evidence from the claimant (the worker) that the claimant may not have. After all, it is the employer who controls and issues documentation about salary – anything from payslips to overtime records. How is the worker to furnish these as evidence? Furthermore, the authorities expect migrant-worker claimants to remain unemployed throughout the many long months of the claim process, which many migrant workers simply cannot afford.

We have written about these issues for years – recruitment fees, salary non-payment, denial of medical support — and since well before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now that the inflow of workers to Singapore has resumed, these problems are back in force too.