What’s clear is the amount payable. Where one sees double are the terms of employment.

In the first third of this post, we will lay out the account provided by a Bangladeshi worker Mithon, aged 36. Mithon is an experienced carpenter.

In the second part of this post we will note what Mithon said was the action being taken by the Ministry of Manpower following his complaint. It is a short section.

In the third part of this post, we will explain the several other violations of law – including international law that Singapore has signed up to regarding human trafficking. There is no indication that they are even being looked into, as if Singapore really does not care about such things. This is a long section.

The chronology

While he was here in Singapore during his previous job, Mithon came to know of a licenced employment agency known as FK Human Resources Private Limited with MOM licence number 07C3781. After going back home to Bangladesh, Mithon remained in contact with FK Human Resources – specifically, a certain Mr Foo, Mithon said – and in early 2023, was given the good news that a new job had been found for him.

Mithon showed us this letter he signed consenting to an unnamed party to make an application for him for a Work Permit. The letter was dated 22 February 2023. Interestingly, it stated the bare bones terms of employment as agreed:

  • Salary at $35 a day;
  • Overtime rate: 1.5 times basic;
  • Accommodation to be provided by employer at no cost to Mithon;
  • No salary deductions to be built into the agreement.

23 February 2023 (the following day), an application was submitted to MOM for a Work Permit. It was soon approved and an In-Principle Approval (IPA) for a Work Permit was issued. A copy was given to Mithon:

The terms as stated in the IPA are in accordance with the agreed terms of employment. The monthly basic salary stated in the IPA ($910) is consistent with the $35/day that Mithon asked for.

We draw readers’ attention to the bottom left item “Agency fee for S’pore EA” which is stated as $900. This is legal since it represents one month of basic salary (the IPA says the Work Permit period is just one year). Under the Employment Agencies Act, the fee is capped at the equivalent of one month’s basic salary for each year of contract, subject to a maximum of two months’ salary.

However, Mithon was asked to pay $1,800. He was asked to pay $300 to the Bangladeshi “branch” of FK Human Resources. That he did. The balance $1,500 was to be paid in Singapore. Mithun could have wired this amount to FK Human Resources, but the payment had to be in cash. Mithon then asked his friend in Singapore, Noyan, for help. Noyan agreed and Mithun transferred money to him through Agrani Bank.

In the image below is a part of a WhatsApp conversation between Mithon and Noyan. It begins with Noyan forwarding a message that he had received from “Agent Mr Foo” asking to fix the location for the handover of $1,500. Ultimately, the spot chosen was near Aljunied MRT station (FK Human Resources’ office was not far away at Paya Lebar). Afterwards, Noyan also sent Mithon a photo of the man who represented “Agent Mr Foo” in receiving the money.

Mithon’s WhatsApp conversation with his friend Noyan

The cash payment took place on or around 6 March 2023,

“Did you or Noyan get a receipt for the cash that was handed over?” we ask Mithon.

“No, nothing.”

The protocol, post-Covid, is that migrant workers have to be lodged for a few days after arrival at an MOM On-boarding Centre. It appears from Mithon’s story that the stay period had to be booked in advance, which in turn meant that Mithon had to time his arrival for exactly that day. This created a new problem. Mithon was to buy his own flight ticket, but for that nominated date, there was no seat availability. Eventually scalpers must have been involved because a seat was found, but the ticket cost over $800 when normally a one-way ticket from Dhaka to Singapore would only be around $400.

Mithon arrived on 27 March 2023. Three days later (30 March), he started work at the job site for the employer Colors Design Workship Pte Ltd. It’s a furniture and renovation company, Mithon says. A few days later, the boss spoke to him and said his salary would be reduced to $26 a day. Mithon’s agreement was sought, but should be refuse, the job would be at an end and the company would send him home.

Naturally, Mithon was not agreeable to this. It was not even a week after arriving here for this job.

“Company then drafted a resignation letter for me to sign,” Mithon says. “They also say that I can try to find new job, and when I find one, they will give me a transfer letter.”

With his many years in Singapore and various contacts, Mithon did manage to find a new job in short order, and the Colors Design lived up to its promise to give him a transfer letter. But there was the question of the $1,800 that Mithon had paid to the FK Human Resources.

“I ask for my money back, but they say no. Then later say they will give me half back after I get the new job,” Mithon continues. “But I need the money, to pay for the new job.”

In any case, he didn’t trust FK Human Resources to actually give him back any money. He wanted the cash now, not later.

On or around 11 April 2023, he went to MOM. According to Mithon, they told him something to the effect that there was no case for MOM’s intervention, and that he should simply go home.

13 April 2023: Mithon approached TWC2 for help and we wrote to MOM.

The help from MOM

A few days later, Mithon was contacted by an MOM officer. Mithun explained that he had found a new employer and that this new employer had submitted an IPA application. The extent of help being offered was limited to “Remember to inform your agent so he will give back half as agreed. Let me know if he does not agree to it.”

Mithon’s WhatsApp conversation with a Ministry of Manpower (MOM) officer

Mithon seemed relieved that MOM was taking an interest at last. We were not so elated. They were only attending to one tiny issue out of many different violations, as if they don’t even realise, or don’t care, that these prior events were what created the problem in the first place.

TWC2 interviewed Mithon on 19 April 2023 and this account is as of that date.

The many violations

Overcharging, false declaration and tax evasion

The most obvious issue is that for a job of one year’s duration and a basic salary of $910 per month, the maximum that FK Human Resources could charge was $910. FK clearly knew this because at the bottom left of the IPA itself (see image above), it stated that it was charging $900.

But Mithon was asked to pay a total of $1,800, of which $300 was to be paid in Bangladesh and the $1,500 in Singapore. There was a WhatsApp message from Mr Foo of FK Human Resources asking for the delivery of the $1,500, and Noyan, his friend, can testify to being the guy who handed the cash over on Mithon’s behalf.

FK might argue that the other $900 was payment for the Bangladeshi agent, payment which FK was collecting on its behalf. This defence would not be credible for two reasons:

  1. If so, why wasn’t $900 collected by the Bangladeshi agent in Bangladesh? Mithon was right there in his home country, and in fact was paying $300 to them in Bangladesh, at FK Singapore’s direction.
  2. Mithon was given to understand that this party in Bangladesh was a “branch” or related company of FK Human Resources. In fact, Mithon’s relationship with FK was entirely through the Singapore office. He did not initiate the job search via any office in Dhaka. On what basis could any Dhaka office, related to FK or not, charge Mithun?

Also suspicious is that the $1,500 was to be paid in cash. Mithon was quite capable of making international bank transfers. Mithon could have paid FK Human Resources’ proper fee of $900 through a bank transfer from Bangladesh, but no, it had to be handed over in cash – and it had to be $1,500. Why?

The reasonable conclusion is that FK was charging Mithon $1,800 but declaring only $900 to MOM.

The violations that could be made out are:

  1. Overcharging;
  2. False declaration;
  3. Tax evasion (no receipt given to Noyan and Mithon).

Contract substitution and trafficking in persons

Colors Design Workshop, the employer, had agreed with Mithon that his basic salary would be $35 a day, equivalent to $910 a month. This can be seen in both the document that Mithun signed on 22 February permitting FK or the employer to apply for an IPA in his name, and in the simple fact that the IPA stated the basic salary to be $910.

Yet, wthin about three days of starting work, Mithon was told to choose between agreeing to a pay cut to $26 a day or losing the job. This is a thunderous sign that

  1. either the employer had never intended to pay $35 a day as agreed, and had entered into the agreement in bad faith (another instance of false declaration);
  2. or the employer saw an opportunity to take advantage of the fact that Mithon had paid $1,800 upfront for the job and would be loath to lose it.

In the case of (1), the employer, Colors Design Workshop, and FK Human Resources, acting as the employer’s agent, can be accused of human trafficking. Singapore’s Prevention of Human Trafficking Act (which domesticises our accession to the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol) says in its Section 3:

3.—(1) Any person who recruits, transports, transfers, harbours or receives an individual (other than a child) by means of —
(a) the threat or use of force, or any other form of coercion;
(b) abduction;
(c) fraud or deception;
(d) the abuse of power;
(e) the abuse of the position of vulnerability of the individual; or
(f) the giving to, or the receipt by, another person having control over that individual of any money or other benefit to secure that other person’s consent,
for the purpose of the exploitation (whether in Singapore or elsewhere) of the individual shall be guilty of an offence.

Item (c) says “fraud or deception” – which would be what (1) above was about.

Item (e) says “the abuse of the position of vulnerability of the individual” which would be what (2) above was about.

Whilst Section 3 also adds “for the the purpose of the exploitation”, this should hardly be difficult to make out. The agent was profitting from the fee he was (over)charging, and the employer was in a position to profit excessively from Mithon’s labour should the worker feel compelled to accept the lower salary.

An explanation about contract substitution can be found on page 6 of a 2015 publication by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. “The Role of Recruitment Fees and Abusive and Fraudulent Recruitment Practices of Recruitment Agencies in Trafficking in Persons”.

There have been numerous reports of recruiters and recruitment agencies deceiving workers regarding the nature of the job for which they are being recruited, as well as the location of jobs, their end employer, living and working conditions, their legal status in destination countries, and travel conditions….

Workers can also be subject to contract substitution, where they sign contracts prior to their departure, but are later forced or lured into signing different contracts, often including worse conditions of work and pay.

Contract substitution is considered by experts in this field as an indicator of human trafficking. It is a flashing red light. Unfortunately, in TWC2’s experience, MOM sees substituted contracts as quite legal so long as the employee has given prior written consent. MOM hardly ever enquires whether such consent was coerced and tends to accept the superficiality of employers’ protestations.

Two other issues

By abruptly demanding a drastic change in the terms of employment, thereby compelling Mithon to resign, the employer was engaging in constructive dismissal. This term encapsulates a situation where an employee did not resign voluntarily, but was forced to do so because of conduct or omission engaged in by the employer (see this webpage from IRB Law for a longer explanation).

To be clear, this is a civil matter, not a criminal one. But one might think that at the very least, the MOM officer should have informed Mithon that filing a constructive dismissal case through MOM and TADM channels was an option. If successful, remedy could take the form of monetary compensation of up to three months’ salary.

What the MOM officer did deal with was the matter of the 50% refund of the agency fee. This refund is provided for in the Employment Agencies Act should an employee lose his or her job within six months. However, when TWC2 spoke with Mithon, our impression was that he was expecting that MOM would help him get back 50% of the $1,800 he paid. No one seemed to have told him that since the documented agency fee was $900 (we argue: falsely declared) the most that Mithon would get was $450.

This raises questions about the quality of services and help rendered to Mithon.

The importance of going beyond the superficial and bare minimum

This is exactly why it is critical for MOM and its officers to deal with the criminal violations behind civil claims. It is no use just relying on workers to point them in the direction of offences; workers shouldn’t be expected to know the law better than MOM officers. The officers themselves, when dealing with a civil complaint should pro-actively look behind the complaint to see if there have been criminal violations in the lead-up to them. Unless these are also dealt with, the problem is never really solved, neither at the level of just resolution for the worker, nor at the level of public interest. It is merely kicked down the road to impact the next worker-victim.

Mithon has so far not mentioned to us any contact with MOM wherein he might have been asked to give a detailed account of events leading up to the contract substitution and constructive dismissal. The absence of any such detailed interview suggests no interest in these matters. Needless to say, without even the protocol of getting an in-depth interview with workers the moment the slightest hint of trafficking violations is revealed, how would MOM even know there are issues to be investigated?

It is hardly any wonder that human trafficking-like practices continue to flourish.

Mithon found a new job. He told us that the agent returned “half” of what he had paid. Although, in the quick call, he didn’t mention the precise amount, we believe it was $750, because Mithon seemed to consider the matter settled. This refund was a private matter between the agent and Mithon. If it had been left to MOM, we wonder whather they would only push the agent to refund $450 instead (because their records only showed the falsely declared fee of $900).

That still leaves all the other issues related to contract susbtitution. The absence of any interest in this instance tells us a lot about Singapore’s commitment to combatting human trafficking.