Elyas (not his real name) walks confidently into TWC2’s DaySpace, our field station in Little India, and from his manner, we figure he’s been here before. “I come out quarantine today,” is how he introduces himself.

He arrived about two weeks earlier for a new job. We’re naturally interested in hearing his story about how he got this latest job and his journey back to Singapore. And just as well that we asked, for Elyas tells us two things that leave us scratching our heads.

First, however, here’s a brief profile of the man.

Experienced welder

Elyas first came to Singapore 29 years ago in 1993. Of these 29 years, he estimates he has spent a total of sixteen years in Singapore, working at various shipyards. He has since become a highly-experienced welder with several certificates to his name.

The new job he will be starting on is in the Process, not Marine shipyard, sector. The Process sector too needs high quality welding work, and Elyas must have been seen as a good fit.

Yet, when we look at his In-principle Approval for a Work Permit (IPA) (see Glossary), we see a basic monthly salary of $572, which is ridiculously low for someone of his experience. Unfortunately, it is consistent with the pattern that we have long observed – depressed salaries for migrant workers however long they have worked.

It is at this point, when we are talking about his IPA and his salary, that he mentions the first of two intriguing aspects.

“I have two IPA,” he says.

“Why were there two?” we naturally ask.

“I don’t know. And the salary different also.”

Two IPAs

Elyas explains further: “The first one, I get on 21 January, say my salary $24 [per day]. The second one I get on 25 or 26 January. It say my salary $22 [per day].”

“And the first IPA have no deduction,” he adds. “The second IPA have $50 deduction.”

Indeed, when we scrutinise the two documents, the salary details are different. The company name, occupation, passport number and other details, however, are the same. Which one is genuine and which one is fake? There is no way to tell.

Below, we image the relevant portions of the two IPAs:

A few years ago, we wrote a number of articles pointing out how agents and employers use the tactic of multiple IPAs to deceive workers about their real employment terms. Sometimes, when a worker got two IPAs, one version was noticeably a forgery, probably meant to lead him to believe he would be getting a good salary.

At other times however, both versions appeared to be genuine and issued by the Ministry of Manpower. Why the ministry would allow multiple versions of an IPA for the same worker (and same job) was a mystery to us and must surely be a weakness in the system that unscrupulous employers and agents were able to exploit with impunity.

In the last two years or so, we didn’t see workers bringing such problems to us and we thought this problem had been solved, but on seeing Elyas’ double IPA, it seems to be re-surfacing.

Are both versions of his IPA genuine? Or is one of them fake? We really cannot tell. Neither can Elyas, and this cannot be a good basis for employment.

Video

Even more intriguing is Elyas’ story about making a video. We have not heard of anything like this before.

The night before he was due to board a flight to Singapore, Elyas was called to an office in Dhaka. Elyas believes it was the office of the agent – the Bangladeshi agent working for the employer to source for men. Eight or nine other workers were also there; they too had just been recruited and were about to leave for Singapore.

There were three other men in the room; they were the agency guys or the recruiters.

Each of the workers in the room were told they had to answer four questions which would be recorded. They would do it one by one, in separate videos. Before the camera rolled, however, they were coached as to what answers to give.

“Before recording start, they teach us how to answer the questions,” is Elyas’ way of describing the preparations.

CAST OF CHARACTERS

(A) Employer

(B) Singapore-based employment agency, with which Elyas had no communication

(C) Dhaka-based agent (representing employer); Elyas believes the video recording was made in their office

(D) Recruiter, with whom Elyas had the most dealings, and who Elyas believes is also a subagent working for the agent (C).

(E) Elyas, the migrant worker (not his real name)

“First question,” Elyas recounts to TWC2, “was what company you join. So I have to say company name.”

The second question was about how much Elyas had to pay to get the job. “I answer I pay two lakh twenty thousand.” He would have been referring to Bangladeshi currency (i.e. 220,000 taka), which would be about $3,500 in Singapore. He confirms to TWC2 that this figure is true – it is the total of four separate payments he made to the recruiter.

The question following that was how much of that amount was paid to the “office”. Elyas understood “office” to mean both the company in Singapore and the company’s agent in Dhaka. He was coached to reply “no” or “nothing” in response to this question.

“What was the fourth question?” we ask Elyas.

“Fourth question was ‘How much company deduct from your salary?’”. This caused a bit of dispute during the coaching session. Elyas pointed out that the two IPAs had different deductions. One was zero and the other was $50. In the end, he replied “$50” in the video.

Circling back to the 220,000 taka ($3,500) that he paid, we ask if he had any idea who the final recipients were. It is very common in the recruiting business that the person who takes the money from the worker shares it with other parties involved in the recruitment, often including a supervisor, manager or even the boss himself in the company that will be employing the worker.

“This I cannot be sure,” Elyas says, but goes on to describe a separate conversation he had with the recruiter (also known as the subagent). Despite taking 220,000 taka from Elyas, the recruiter said his share was only 6,000 to 7,000 taka. If so, then the bulk of the “fee” paid by Elyas could only have gone up the food chain. A small part might have been used to pay for the flight, though.

We cannot know if the subagent’s claim to be taking “only” 6,000 or 7,000 taka (S$100) was true. While on the face of it, it seems very low compared to the total of 220,000 taka that Elyas had to pay, it is nevertheless plausible. We say this because TWC2 recently learned from a huge construction company (‘QV”) operating in the Gulf states that when they worked out a schedule of fees and costs between them and their recruiting agency in Dhaka, the schedule of fees included a subagent’s commission of US$100, which is about 8,500 taka. That was how much they would pay subagents for their services.

Elyas’ recruiter’s claim that his share was only 6,000 to 7,000 taka seems consistent with what we heard from QV; it may well be the market rate for recruiters or subagents.

QV’s SCHEDULE OF COSTS AND FEES

As a global company, QV wanted to ensure that all its workers were recruited ethically. So, it identified a recruitment agency in Dhaka and worked out a contract with it, in which no worker hired by this route would be charged any recruitment fee. QV would bear all the costs of recruitment with a fair commission to the recruitment agency and its subagents.

QV shared with TWC2 the schedule of costs and fees detailed in the contract, and we could see from there that only US$100 (8,500 taka) was budgeted for subagents for each new employee found for QV.

But what was the video for? Who might it have been for?

Is our Ministry of Manpower asking employers to submit such videos? That would be such an onerous requirement, it is hardly believable.

Or is the employer doing this as a pre-emptive move just in case the authorities later make enquiries? If so, it would still seem strange to go through the trouble. After all, who goes around creating alibis unless one is guilty but trying to cover one’s tracks?

All these questions notwithstanding, there is still this: what probative value can such a video have? The men were coached before they answered their questions on camera. In Elyas’ case, he had already paid 220,000 taka ($3,500) before being summoned to appear on the video. He describes the moment, seated before the camera, as “Same like put in handcuff. What they tell me to say, I must follow!”