A worker took time off work to ask us for an opinion the other day. His cousin, who is now back home in Bangladesh, had applied for jobs here three times, but each time when the prospective employer applied to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for an In-principle Approval for a Work Permit, it was rejected.

The back story went like this:

In 2020, when the Cousin was working in Singapore, a friend of his (also then working in Singapore) approached him to ask if he knew of any job openings. We will call this friend the Jobseeker. The jobseeker’s then-current Work Permit was nearing its expiry and the jobseeker was looking for a change of employment.

The cousin said he personally didn’t know of any vacancy, but maybe a third person – let’s call him the Fixer – might. The cousin then introduced Jobseeker to Fixer. This fixer too was then in Singapore; our understanding is that he was a migrant worker himself.

Not long after, Fixer found a new job for Jobseeker and an In-principle Approval (IPA) was obtained. See Glossary for more details about how IPAs are applied for.

Before handing over the IPA to Jobseeker, Fixer wanted payment. However, Jobseeker didn’t fully trust him, because he had not known Fixer previously. What if I give him the money and he doesn’t pass me the IPA? So Jobseeker asked Cousin whether he could route the asked-for $1,000 through him. The cousin said yes, and the jobseeker wired the amount into the cousin’s bank account (in Singapore). Cousin then transferred the money onwards to the fixer.

According to our informant, the cousin did not take a cut, but only did it as a favour.

Somehow, Jobseeker did not take up the new job. We hear that after the existing employer got wind of the move, he put obstacles in the way of jobseeker transferring to the new job and it was scuttled. We don’t know if this version of events is true since we’re hearing it third-hand.

Jobseeker then asked for his money back. The cousin said he had transferred the full amount to the fixer, and would ask the fixer for it. However, Fixer said no to the request, his reason being that he had done his part and produced an IPA for a new job. Unhappy, Jobseeker then filed a complaint with MOM, and provided details of how he paid for the now-aborted new job.

Among those details was the cousin’s bank account number.

According to our informant, the cousin’s employer then got a notice from MOM cancelling the cousin’s Work Permit, giving them a few days to arrange his repatriation. The cousin has since not been able to find a new job in Singapore. Each time, the application for an IPA was rejected.

Our worker-informant asked us, “What are my cousin’s chances of coming back?”

We said it was poor. The cousin would be better off looking for work in other countries.

Acting as an employment agent without a licence is an offence

It’s no mystery why MOM did as they did. Following Jobseeker’s complaint, they uncovered an instance where two Bangladeshis (the fixer and the cousin) either acted as an employment agent or played some role in the affair. It is very clearly stated in the Employment Agencies Act that unless one had the requisite licence, it is an offence to perform the role of an agent. We do not believe that the fixer had such a licence since he was himself a Bangladeshi migrant worker.

The cousin might have protested his innocence and said he was only the conduit for the payment and didn’t take a cut. But being a conduit is also abetment, and so it’s not a strong defence.

That MOM cancelled the cousin’s Work Permit abruptly was an indication of how seriously they took the matter. We would assume that the fixer’s Work Permit was similarly cancelled.

We do not object to MOM doing what they did. It is right that the authorities take stern action to stamp up the curse of illegal agents operating here (mostly migrant workers themselves).

But why did they act as they did?

And yet it would not be fair to jump to the conclusion that all three of them acted stupidly. What we’re going to show here is that they acted rationally and in the way their circumstances and social experience have taught them to act. They were applying the Bangladeshi social operating system while in Singapore.

The problem was that the Bangladeshi social operating system falls foul of Singapore law which reflects Singapore’s social operating system.

Theirs is one characterised by informal, personal trust networks, because their state is weak, and enforcement of laws and written contracts uncertain at best. Ours is one characterised by bureaucratic systems and we’ve been conditioned to rely on such systems (e.g. licensing) for trust.

How do Bangladeshis in their social strata find jobs? Through personal contacts, not through formal agents. In their own country, formal agents are city-based, distant and not quite trusted, likely because hiring through formal channels is often corrupted through under-the-table inducements or political connections. In any case, for overseas jobs, it is the freelance “sub-agents” or “dalals” who are on the ground in the small towns and villages, and who do the actual recruiting. They are often able to bypass the formal (Bangladeshi-registered) agents, putting jobseekers directly into jobs in Singapore. The dalals have their own connections with Singapore employers.

Why do Bangladeshis in the small towns and villages trust dalals? We hear of recommendations by relatives, village elders, even by mosque leaders.

So, Bangladeshi jobseekers are acculturated not to bother with formal agencies but rather, to find a connection to some dalal or another. And that’s exactly how Jobseeker began his job search. He approached Cousin, who helpfully introduced him to Fixer. The latter was effectively a dalal, albeit one operating in Singapore.

Our sense is that if we asked a hundred Bangladeshi workers to name a fully registered employment agency in Singapore, no more than one would be able to do so. The overwhelming majority of them would know none. Singapore-licensed agencies do almost nothing to market themselves to potential jobseekers; instead they have reduced themselves to the role of doing the IPA paperwork on behalf of employers after dalals have found the workers. No wonder then that the workers feel no connection with Singaporean agencies and hardly know about their existence.

When it came to payment from Jobseeker to Fixer, issues of trust surfaced again. If the job search had involved Singaporeans working with a Singapore-licensed agent, the registration licence of the agent would be a factor in engendering trust. But as Jobseeker was using a dalal, this factor was absent. In its place, Bangladeshis use personal knowledge and connections as trust-enablers. Jobseeker did not trust fixer, but he could trust his friend, the cousin. The cousin could trust Fixer, because clearly Cousin had known him from before, and the two of them might even be personal friends of long standing.

Understandably then, the payment was routed the way it was – following the channels of social trust.

Singapore’s mysterious neglect: building alternatives

It’s a no-brainer that we should not ban something essential without providing an alternative.

Singapore has made it very expensive to own private cars and has limited parking spaces. But these actions have been accompanied by developing a good public transport system.

When Covid-19 hit the dorms badly and workers were confined by the lock-downs of April 2020, the government rushed to make employers responsible for providing meals. In normal times, many workers would go out to buy groceries and cook their own meals, but this became impossible once the dorms were locked down. At the same time, it was mandated that all employers must open bank accounts for their employees so that monthly wages could be paid to them electronically, instead of handling cash, which would require face-to-face contact.

Yet in the area of recruitment, the picture is mostly one of neglect. Yes, there is the occasional instance (like this one) where the government took action, though TWC2 has plenty of other examples where the government did not, despite what seemed to us to be convincing evidence.

But more seriously, the great neglect is in not creating and supporting an alternative recruitment system that can effectively replace the dalals.

“Effectively” is the key word here.

What we see is a lazy reliance on the notion of laissez-faire, and on Singapore-licensed agents to do recruitment. Recruitment is a private-sector matter, and the government should not get involved – is probably how the thinking goes. The reality is that, as relatively small business outfits, Singapore-licensed agencies have no capacity to do a good job of it. We might even say that the motivation is simply not there. As it is, the dalals are giving the licensed agents a cut of the fees without their having to do the legwork; so why should they (the licensed agents) even try to do the legwork (to find jobseekers) themselves, and kill the golden geese (the dalals) who are bringing them easy money?

We should take a leaf from our transport policy. As we restrict the ownership and use of private cars, it is the government that takes the lead in investing in and promoting public transport. If we had left it to privately-operated bus companies, there’d be no seamless or comprehensive network. If we had left it to laissez-faire, there’d be no metro system.

The same lesson should be applied to migrant worker recruitment.