Two men began looking for new jobs. Both were in somewhat desperate situations.

Shakib had gone home to Bangladesh to get married and start a family in 2019, thinking he would be back in Singapore in a year’s time with a new job. Covid-19 put paid to those plans. By early 2022, with two infants to feed, he had to redouble his efforts to find a job.

While Shakib was asking around for opportunities, Taher was happily working in Singapore. Then, in June 2022, his boss gave him the bad news. With the project they were working on reaching completion, the company would have no more work for the crew. The boss said he would give Taher four days (four days!) to look for a new job, failing which a flight ticket home would be bought for him.

The scam

When Shakib found a contact in Juneid, things looked up. Juneid, a fellow Bangladeshi, was working in Singapore – he was probably a Work Permit holder too – and he said he had contacts to help Shakib. Juneid expected to be paid for his efforts which would make him an illegal employment agent.

Juneid offered a job to Shakib with a construction company (we will call the company “Bait”) with a basic salary of $570 a month. In the first place, this is a very low salary for someone like Shakib who had, until 2019, worked about ten years in Singapore. Still, in Shakib’s eyes, this was better than no job at all. After some negotiation, both agreed on a fee of $1,500. Juneid sent to Shakib a copy of the In-Principle Approval (see Glossary) regarding the Bait company job.

Since Shakib was in Bangladesh and Juneid was in Singapore, the obvious way to get money across was for Shakib to ask a friend he knew in Singapore to pay Juneid on his behalf. The friend did so, and $1,500 was transferred from that friend’s bank account to Juneid’s bank account.

The law

Under the Employment Agencies Act, no one is supposed to perform employment agency services unless one has a licence. It is extremely unliekly that Juneid was a licensed agent, since licensed agents are supposed to provide documentation complete with their licence number and Juneid never did.

He would hardly be alone; there are possibly hundreds of such Work Permit holders in Singapore making lots of money acting as agents.

The Singapore government, despite its laws, seems quite content to turn a blind eye to them, going by the pathetically few convictions on record and the far more numerous cases where despite someone bringing a case to their attention, the “investigation” (for what that is worth), is “inconclusive”.

Then Juneid dropped a bombshell. He told Shakib that the fee should be $4,000 and that Shakib had to cough up another $2,500. Shakib protested vigourously, as anyone would. But Juneid would only agree to reduce the amount slightly.

As Shakib tells TWC2: “He [Juneid] say, ‘[If] you don’t pay, I not return your passport.'” Shakib had earlier forwarded his passport to Juneid to apply for the Bait company job.

Referring to the $1,500 already paid, “He also say, ‘Your money, I not give back.'”

Shakib was left with no choice but to pay the higher sum. He scrambled around to raise the money, borrowing 119,000 Bangladeshi taka (approximately Singapore dollars $1,800). Juneid then told Shakib to pay the money to a nominee of his in Dhaka. Shakib paid 50,000 taka via BKash (an online service) to this nominee with a further 69,000 handed over in cash.

In total, Shakib paid about $3,300.

Around the same time, Juneid dropped another bombshell. Now he said the Bait job was no more. Instead it would be a different job (let’s call the company Switch) with a lower basic salary of only $428 a month. That’s roughly $16 per working day, barely enough to buy two meals in a food court in Singapore, with absolutely nothing left over.

Juneid sent a new In-principle Approval over.

Here are salary details from the In-principle Approvals for the two jobs:

Shakib was very unhappy but the die was cast. He had to take the job. He flew to Singapore and started work on 1 June 2022. The approximately $3,300 he paid represented about eight months’ basic salary.

And then he discovered that Switch was not a proper construction company but merely a manpower supply company. What this means is that it had no projects of its own, but was in the business of loaning its workers to other companies that had projects. A “supply worker” like Shakib faces heightened salary and job insecurity.

Should the contracting company face cash flow problems, it will have to confront a choice of whether to pay its own employees first or pay the manpower supply company. This is why the manpower supply company’s employees face greater salary insecurity.

Worse yet, since in the construction industry the need for labour swells and shrinks from one phase of a project to the next, each time it shrinks, the contracting company will naturally choose to use its own staff and let the supplied staff go. A supply worker wakes up every morning wondering whether he still has a job for the day. No doubt, the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA) says that whether or not there is work, employers must still pay their employees their basic salaries, but the same law also allows employers to cancel Work Permits at any time. As soon as manpower supply contracts dry up, would such an employer still want to retain his employees with an obligation to pay salaries, or would it be more likely that the boss would cancel the men’s Work Permits?

Shakib is now well and truly stuck. he wants to lodge a complaint with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) about the illegal activities of Juneid. TWC2’s caseworker is on it, but going by MOM’s abysmal track record with such cases, we think nothing will happen and Juneid will get away scot-free and considerably richer.

The lucky break

Being given just four days to find a new job, or else have his Work Permit cancelled, Taher’s chances of success would have looked very poor. If he didn’t succeed, he’d be sent home by his employer. MOM’s policies are that within a week of the cancellation of a Work Permit, the worker has to be repatriated. Once home, Taher could be exposed to the kind of scam that Shakib was.

Luckily for him, virtually the first friend he reached out to for a contact said he knew of an employer who was hiring. Almost in a blink of an eye, Taher was off to a job interview. “The Chinese [Singaporean] boss interview me and say ‘OK, I give you job.'”

It will be hard work. The new job will be as a demolition worker, and it is well known in construction circles that this is physically-demanding work. But it also means a higher salary. Taher will be getting $832 per month as basic salary, about 50% more than the previous job.

When he dropped by on 11 July at TWC2’s Cuff Road Project for his free meal, he was looking forward to starting the new job in a few days’ time. The In-principle Approval for the new job had been issued.

We ask Taher: “Did anybody ask you to pay money for the job?”

He replies: “No. Nobody ask money. I pay nothing.”

We ask a second time to make sure we understood. He confirms that neither the friend who introduced him to the employer nor the boss who interviewed him even suggested any payment.

Not just a tale of two workers

Although luck no doubt played a part – bad luck in Shakib’s case, good fortune in Taher’s case – the outcomes of these two stories are also consistent with a pattern that TWC2 has long observed. Workers located in Bangladesh, trying to get jobs here via intermediaries, have a much higher chance of being scammed than foreign workers in Singapore able to look for new jobs without having to go home.

There’s a simple reason why this is so. A worker who is outside Singapore has to find his way through greater opacity; he may end up dealing with multiple middlemen. Juneid might have been working through other contacts without Shakib’s knowledge, and sharing his spoils with them.

Another contrast: Taher was quickly introduced to the new boss and personally interviewed whereas Shakib only knew of his potential employers, Bait and Switch, merely as names on pieces of paper.

We see yet another aspect of this opacity/clarity divide: Shakib had no idea what job was awaiting him; he only discovered after starting work that he was employed by a manpower supply company. But Taher knew very well that he would be a demolition worker, and he also understood that that was why the salary was higher.

Finally, readers would notice that even if Shakib had not been scammed (i.e. even if the Bait job came through), he would have had to pay for his new job. Taher was not even asked for money.

While both men had to depend on intermediaries to introduce them to jobs, in Shakib’s case, the intermediary demanded to be paid; in Taher’s case it was a personal favour. But intermediary there still was, with all its potential for abuse. What ever happened to the idea of job ads?

TWC2 has long argued that we should actively create channels for workers and employers to find each other without need for intermediaries. In the 21st Century, when information technology is ubiquitous, and when just about every migrant worker here has a smart phone, it is absurd that workers still have to depend on word of mouth through unverified middlemen to find jobs.

It is also beyond absurd that the Employment Agencies Act is largely good only for gesturing. Illegal agents run rampant and the government seems happy enough to be impotent.

Here is an article from 2020 describing, conceptually, the steps we need to take: Recruitment reform — what needs to be done.