Farhad writing his letter to the Ministry of Manpower

Generally speaking, migrant workers holding Work Permits are not allowed to transfer to another employer unless consent is given by the existing employer. However, those in the construction, marine and process sectors have a special exception, known as the “no-consent period”.

How this works is like this:

1. Between the 60th and 41st day prior to the expiry of the Work Permit, employer and employee are supposed to discuss about its renewal, and the terms of renewal. If both parties agree on renewal of the Work Permit, a renewal application can be submitted online to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

2. If parties do not agree on renewal, then the worker is free to look for another job between the 40th and 21st day prior to expiry. During this 20-day period, another employer can put in a Work Permit application for this worker, and no consent is needed from the existing employer – thus the name “no-consent period”.

3. If MOM approves the application for a new Work Permit, MOM will notify the parties that an In-principle Approval (IPA) has been issued, and the formalities for the worker moving over to the new employer has then to be negotiated among all concerned.

4. If no IPA is issued as a result of the no-consent period, then from the 21st day to the expiry date, preparations should be made for the worker’s repatriation.

There are many reasons why MOM might not approve a new application for a Work Permit. One is if there is already an IPA in place for the same worker. Until that one is expunged, no other employer will be able to get an IPA for the guy.

How an employer exploited MOM’s working methods to defeat MOM’s intentions

Let’s begin by taking MOM’s policy at face value: that it does want experienced workers to stay on in Singapore so that we can benefit from their skills. And if employer and employee cannot reach an agreement on renewal, then at least the worker should be able to find another job here and so continue to contribute to our economy.

This story is about how one employer defeated the ministry. It did so by using MOM’s own (bad) process design against it. In other words, what this employer did was perfectly proper, in the sense of being in accordance with the process design. Yet, the result was that MOM allowed its own policy to be defeated, at a cost to the worker and Singapore’s larger interest of skills retention.

The worker’s name is Farhad, aged 34. He joined RT Engineering and Construction Pte Ltd in January 2019, and had been with this employer for three years.

Partly because of the Covid-19 pandemic, he had not been home to Bangladesh to see his family.

After annual renewals in January 2020 and January 2021, his Work Permit was reaching its next expiry date on 29 January 2023. About 50 days prior to the expiry date, Farhad’s boss asked him to sign a renewal letter. Farhad hesitated. Partly, he wanted a raise; partly too he wanted to go home to see his family, at least for a short while. So, he demurred.

Although he wasn’t much inclined to use the no-consent period to go straight into a new job without first seeing his family, nevertheless, Farhad would like to have a new job lined up as soon as possible so that he would not have this worry on his shoulders if he did go home.

Thus, utilising the no-consent period to obtain a new IPA would be the best thing to do, even if he planned to visit his family for a couple of weeks or a month.

However, according to Farhan, the boss was not too happy with him turning down renewal at RT Engineering & Construction. Even so, it didn’t much bother Farhan because he knew that a no-consent period was his right. Or so he thought.

Unexpected new IPA

20 December 2022 was the 40th day before the expiry of the current Work Permit. It was the opening day of Farhad’s no-consent period.

It was also the day when Farhad received a notification from MOM that a new IPA had been approved for him. How was this possible? Farhad wondered. He hadn’t even agreed to any new job yet.

However, the notification contained enough information to indicate what happened behind his back. The purported new employer named in the IPA was a company whose name was remarkably similar to the name of Farhad’s existing employer.

To wit:

The existing employer was RT Engineering and Construction Pte Ltd,
with registered address 1 Irving Place, #09-02,
a paid-up capital of $300,000;
all shares held by a single shareholder, a certain Ting Wei Hee.

The new employer was RT Design & Build Pte Ltd,
with registered address 1 Irving Place, #09-02,
a paid-up capital of $100,000;
all shares held by a single shareholder, a certain Ting Wei Hee.

It certainly appears that the same boss put in a new application as soon as the no-consent period began. It also looks as if MOM approved the new application almost instantly and notified Farhad. At no time was Farhad asked (by anyone) whether he was agreeable to the new job. He only came to know of it after it had been approved by MOM.

Came to TWC2

Farhad came to TWC2 on the evening of Thursday, 22 December 2022 to consult with us. His chief question was how to get the IPA cancelled, so that it would not block any new application in future from an employer he wanted.

We said the way to do that was to write to MOM personally stating his request for an investigation and cancellation. Farhad did exactly that and we helped him email it to the ministry.

We didn’t hear back from MOM until 3:30pm on Monday 9 January 2023, two and a half weeks from when Farhad’s letter was sent to them. Thankfully, the reply was that the IPA in the name of RT Design & Build Pte Ltd had been cancelled.

However, 9 January was also a significant date in two other ways. Firstly, it was the 20th day prior to the expiry date. That meant that the no-consent period had been exhausted, and Farhad had not been able to benefit from it to apply for another job.

Secondly, that was also the day Farhad was sent home by the employer. He was not told about the repatriation plans till just a few days before. His flight departing at 4:50pm, Farhad left Singapore eighty minutes after MOM’s letter came through.

Why didn’t the employer wait till the Work Permit expired before arranging repatriation? Why was it necessary to prematurely cancel his Work Permit and send him home?

We can’t speak to the employer’s thoughts and motivation, but we know enough about human nature to understand that sometimes, as a demonstration of power, people do these things: I can foul up your best-laid plans if you ever try to stand up to me.

Why is MOM so indifferent to bad process design?

Individual human nature may not be something we can do much about, but institutional behaviour should be held to a higher standard; government departments even more so, since they should be accountable to the public and operate on taxpayer money. The question highlighted by Farhad’s experience – and as readers can see from several other similar stories on this site, it is hardly an isolated case – is why MOM has so far done little about this weakness in its own process.

It has left two vetoes in the hands of employers. The first is the easy way that ill-intentioned employers can put in a new application for a Work Permit without obtaining the worker’s agreement. True, they are not supposed to abuse the process, but when abuses happen again and again, the responsibility shifts to the designer of the process (MOM) to fix the loopholes. This is easily done, as TWC2 has pointed out multiple times before. Just ask the worker directly whether he is agreeable to the new job before approving the new IPA.

It’s not as if MOM has no way to contact the worker. Firstly, we’re speaking of situations where the worker is in Singapore, trying to utilise his no-consent period. Secondly, if MOM has his contact number to send the notification to the worker post-facto, then MOM should be able to send a request to the worker to give his consent to the new job.

It might not be so bad if MOM cancels the offending IPA as quickly as it approves it. That way, the worker might lose just one or two days of his no-consent period. But in Farhad’s case, MOM took over two weeks to do so, by which time, the no-consent period had run out. In other cases that TWC2 has seen, MOM had taken a month or more.

The second veto that MOM has left in the hands of employers is the complete freedom to cancel a Work Permit at any time. An employer can cancel a Work Permit just when the no-consent period is starting or at anytime during the period. Once it is cancelled, the no-consent period is no longer available to the worker.

Why is MOM so indifferent to employers’ blatant moves to stymie policy? This opens the door to a lot of speculation.