In the last few months, an unusually high number of help requests came to TWC2 over unauthorised IPAs. “IPA” stands for In-principle Approval for a Work Permit (see Glossary). This is not a new problem, but it seems to be more common this year. This is a problem created by bad process design at the level of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), and as we will point out below, the ministry exposes itself to accusations that it is promoting forced labour.

In this post, we present six cases that we helped workers with in the last three or four months. All six were successfully resolved, but that is not the point. The point is that the problems should never have arisen in the first place – if only the process for getting a Work Permit was better designed.

Before we go further, a brief summary of the Work Permit application process is needed. It is an online process, with these key features and steps:

  • Only employers and Singapore-licensed employment agents can access the ministry’s online IPA system to apply for a Work Permit;
  • Applicants have to submit a lot of details, including the passport details of the worker to be hired;
  • When approved, the ministry sends the applicant (i.e. employer or agent) a link through which a digital PDF copy of the In-principle Approval can be downloaded;
  • The applicant is responsible for sending a copy of the IPA to the worker, who can use it in lieu of a visa to enter Singapore for work.

What is notable about the process is that at no point is the worker involved. The ministry has no routine way to ascertain whether the worker has even agreed to the job and to the application being made for him. The fact that a system was designed in a way that excluded the worker, even though it’s his life and his job that is at the heart of the matter, reflects the employer-centric attitudes at the ministry.

We asked MOM what systems they had in place to ensure that a worker had agreed to a job before an employer or agent applies for a Work Permit. The reply we got was something to the effect that it is the employer’s or agent’s responsibility to obtain written consent from the prospective worker. We asked whether there was a standard form that workers had to fill in and sign and the reply indicated that there was not.

Our concern is that so long as this “written consent” is not formalised, any number of abuses is possible. Employers can claim they had consent by making prospective workers sign papers they do not understand.

Case #6 below is one such example. In that case, MOM appeared to be taking the position that so long as the employer or agent had in his possession passport and other personal details of the worker, such would represent consent. If our suspicion is correct, this would be a very low bar indeed.

A key feature is that once a worker has been named in an IPA, then no other employer can apply for an IPA for the same worker until the first one expires, which can be months away. We could find nothing on MOM’s website that says exactly how long until expiry; it seems to vary from case to case. In any case, employers and agents are able to extend the validity of IPAs even as they reach expiry dates. Once again, this is unilateral. Workers are not asked by MOM for their consent to extension. So, during this period, i.e. when there is an outstanding IPA for a job that the worker had not agreed to, he is presented with two bad choices: either accept the job on the IPA against his will or languish for several months without the option to apply for another job.

Moreover, workers fear that if they turn down an IPA and refuse to come to Singapore, they may be blacklisted from future IPAs. Whether this is true or not is beside the point: a worker can quite reasonably fear this since MOM’s Work Permit approval process is entirely discretionary, and as a result, he may feel pressured to accept an IPA (and job) that he had not agreed to. This slides into forced labour, and the policy of the Singapore government giving so much power to employers and agents has a part to play.

Six cases

The cases we present below show how the system has been exploited by unscrupulous employers and agents. In some of these cases, workers complained to us that someone somewhere applied for an IPA in their name, without their authorisation. In other cases, whilst the workers had initially agreed to take up the jobs, the employers later changed the terms of employment (see example #5 below), or simply didn’t buy them flight tickets (example #3); it left the workers in limbo, and yet, despite workers asking the employers to cancel the IPAs, employers did not do so.

It wouldn’t be so bad if MOM permits a worker to enter the system and reject any IPA in his name, but the system does not allow this. Instead, workers have to appeal to MOM and have to satisfy MOM that they had not agreed to the job beforehand. Workers are asked to prove the negative. Beneath this lies a set of attitudes: Employers are, by default, treated as credible and trustworthy and their form submissions are accepted at face value, while workers are, by default, seen as untrustworthy and duplicitous and their submissions treated as suspect until proven otherwise.

In practice, the system does not operate as starkly biased as that. As our examples below will show, workers are able, with our help, to successfully challenge the IPAs they had not agreed to. But it can be argued that this is more to the credit of the individual officers dealing with these cases than to system design. The system still requires each appeal by a worker to be investigated. In one of our examples, it took months, during which the worker could not apply for another job.

Investigations should be completely unnecessary. After all, the moral principle has been enshrined in the Employment Act, which says a worker in a job can resign at any time without having to justify his or her decision. The Act makes it clear that no employer can refuse a resignation. In fact, MOM will help a worker effectuate his resignation as a matter of right should the employer prove intransigent. If worker can resign from a job without need to justify doing so, why can’t a worker reject an IPA as a matter of right?

And what if a worker does not know about TWC2 and does not know where to turn to for help in getting an unwanted IPA cancelled? How many workers are there in Singapore in jobs they felt compelled to accept, and from which they cannot easily leave for fear of having to write off their recruitment costs?

1. Kali

Kali’s previous Work Permit was due to expire on 16 June 2022. He and his employer could not agree on a renewal because the employer would not give him a pay increase. Even then, instead of letting the permit expire naturally, and giving Kali an opportunity to look for a new job without first having to go home, the employer cancelled the permit on 25 May 2022. This triggered mandatory repatriation, depriving Kali of a chance to find a transfer job.

Kali went back to India on 6 June 2022.

About a month later, Kali contacted TWC2 for help. He explained that he had found a new job but when the new employer tried to apply for an IPA for him, the application was denied because, the system said, there was another existing IPA for him. Kali did some sleuthing and discovered that the employer behind that IPA was none other than his former employer. The application date for that blocking IPA was 9 June 2022, three days after he left Singapore.

Before contacting TWC2, Kali had tried to reach the old employer to ask him to cancel the IPA, but received no response.

TWC2 relayed Kali’s request to MOM and after 11 days, the ministry replied to say the blocking IPA had been “revoked”. Kali got his new job in the end.

What was the former employer’s motive in putting in an IPA when Kali had not even agreed to a renewal of the old Work Permit? It was almost surely revenge – using MOM’s IPA system to make it difficult for Kali to get a new job.

2. Shamim

Similar to Kali’s case, Shamim was shocked to hear from a prospective new employer that the IPA application was denied on the ground that there was already another IPA outstanding for him. Shamim had not applied for any other job. He suspected that it was his former employer that put in this malicious IPA application, though, unlike Kali, he did not have the skills to find out.

TWC2 helped Shamim write to MOM to ask for cancellation of the blocking IPA. Eleven days later, MOM replied to say it had been cancelled.

But, by then, Shamim’s new employer seemed to have found another worker and Shamim lost his latest job opportunity. He had to start looking for a new job all over again.

3. Reza

In Reza’s case, the IPA in question was for a job that he had agreed to, but for unknown reasons, the employer kept delaying his travel arrangements. After waiting long enough to come to Singapore to start work, Reza contacted the company and said, “If now you don’t want me, please cancel the IPA.” Reza wanted to be free to apply for another job. The company agreed to do so.

Yet it was not done, and after that, the company fell silent completely. Reza had to approach TWC2 for help. We wrote to MOM.

About two to three weeks later, MOM replied to say that the IPA had been cancelled.

4. Farhad

As in Reza’s case, Farhad’s IPA was applied by a company with his consent. But Farhad later found a better-paying job. He then spoke with this employer again and they agreed to part ways amicably. The employer agreed to cancel the IPA.

A little while later, when the better-paying second company tried to apply for an IPA for Farhad, it was rejected. Farhad then contacted TWC2 for help, and we wrote to MOM. This was in March 2022.

After about two weeks, which is normally how long it takes to hear back from MOM, we asked again, and were told that MOM was “still engaging” with the employer (presumably the company that put in the first IPA) and that they would update us further. This was followed by three months of silence.

By July, the IPA was due to expire (on 9 July 2022), and Farhad thought that even if MOM did not reply, the second employer should then be free to put in a new IPA application for him. To his surprise, this second attempt (13 July 2022) was also rejected. Farhad suspects that the first company, instead of cancelling the IPA as agreed, could have extended it. Out of spite, perhaps.

TWC2 had to engage MOM again and finally on 18 July, we received confirmation that the IPA had finally been cancelled.

5. Rashid

In December 2020, Rashid resigned from the company where he had worked for the past four years, to go home to Bangladesh to be with his ill father. Between that family crisis and the waves of Covid-19 spreading through India and Bangladesh in 2021, he was not able to return to Singapore as soon as he might have liked.

By December 2021, things had stabilised and he approached his old employer again. They agreed to take him back and applied for an IPA for him. Our records indicate that the IPA “lapsed” or “expired” quite quickly after that, but it’s not clear why. It might even have been cancelled. In any case, the company applied for another IPA in February 2022, but this time a lower basic salary was stated in it, together with a $100 deduction for housing, a deduction that Rashid did not have to bear in the four years before, nor was it in the first version of the IPA.

Rashid said the debasement in salary terms was done without his consent. Nevertheless, he was prepared to accept the job, because he really needed one after being unemployed back home for more than a year.

Then he caught Covid and he was unable to come to Singapore. The employer was annoyed with him. Rashid, who anyway was not happy with the debased terms of employment, then told them that it would be best to part ways, and asked that the IPA be cancelled. The employer said he would not do so unless Farhad paid his “losses”. What those losses were remain unspecified.

Here is a small part of the WhatsApp exchange wherein the employer asked Rashid to pay up. It is eye-opening to see how a company was leveraging MOM’s IPA process to extract money from a worker.

Rashid contacted TWC2 and we emailed MOM for him. Two weeks later, MOM replied to say the IPA had been cancelled.

6. Moj

Seven months before we came to know of his case, Moj had asked an “agent” – actually, just someone who claimed to be an agent on Facebook –  to look for a job for him. As would be customary, the agent asked Moj for his personal details in order to proceed, and Moj provided the information. Nothing came out of that as the agent later told him that he was unsuccessful in finding a willing employer.

Months later and through another intermediary, Moj found a job but this IPA application was rejected. There was another existing IPA for him – one that he knew nothing about.

He contacted TWC2 for help and we wrote to MOM for him. The reply we later got was that Moj had given his consent to the (first) IPA job and that if he wanted it cancelled, he should contact and negotiate with that company directly. In effect, MOM would not accord Moj any right to refuse a job – a stance that raises questions about government abetment of forced labour.

Moreover, this potentially paves the way for the first company to demand an extortionate amount from Moj to cancel the IPA. If they do so, MOM can similarly be accused of creating conditions for extortion.

Simple solutions

This whole problem springs from a failure to honour the principle that every worker has a right to refuse a job at any time (even after he had first agreed to one). Anything less ventures into forced labour territory.

Ideally, a worker should be asked by MOM to give explicit consent before an IPA is issued, but when a worker is outside Singapore, this can prove difficult to implement.

Nonetheless, simple solutions are at hand. Workers already in Singapore should be able to use their Singpasses (Singapore’s digital ID) to access MOM’s system and reject any IPA in their name. It will also help in cases where an employer verbally promised certain terms of employment, but then in his online application for an IPA, enters poorer terms of employment – currently workers have no easy way to reject this either. As for workers outside Singapore or who do not have Singpasses, a simple request to MOM to cancel an IPA should be sufficient to trigger action. The worker should never be asked to justify his request, and the cancellation or revocation should be immediate.