Senior volunteer Mizue Sauco (centre) speaking with a worker. Salary shortages and difficulties with transfer are among the most common issues workers bring to TWC2.

Sometime last year, in 2022, a senior volunteer was explaining “COE” to a junior. The initials stand for “Change of Employer”, which is a privilege given to workers by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) based on certain, sometimes opaque, considerations to seek a new job without first having to be repatriated.

COE does not guarantee that the worker will get a new job, only that he is allowed to seek a new one without first having to be sent home. The most common scenario in which a worker gets COE (commonly known as “permission to transfer”) is one which he has successfully fought a salary claim.

The senior volunteer told the junior, however, that the COE period was just 14 days. If the worker was not able to find a new job within that short period, the COE would expire and he would have to be sent home (flight to be paid for by the previous employer). There were cases when the COE had been extended, but why, when and who got this joy was even more opaque.

“Only two weeks?” the junior volunteer exclaimed.

We have no answer to why only two weeks. It seems to be an administrative practice decided on who-knows-what basis. However, while the reason for two weeks is unknown, at least the principle of offering COE is anchored in ministerial statements made to Parliament, which means that civil servants cannot deny COE altogether.

“Ya, but still, two weeks to find a new job?” The junior volunteer was still trying to digest that. “Is that lip service or what?”

We could guess where she was coming from. She was helping out at TWC2 because she was between jobs. Despite being a graduate, she had been “between jobs” for around two months already. Her personal experience was that to expect to land a job within two weeks from the get-go was too optimistic.

A few weeks later

A few weeks later, another senior volunteer came along and expressed her frustration with the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) – the unit under the umbrella of MOM that conducts mediation over salary disputes. She had just heard from a worker that the TADM officer had told him that if he settled at mediation, he (the worker) would get COE, but if he insisted on taking his claim further to the Employment Claims Tribunal, which was his right under law, he would not be given COE.

The problem for the worker was that at mediation, the employer was offering to settle at merely half of the owed amount. The worker therefore had to choose between forgoing half his claim in order to get COE, or pressing his claim further at the Tribunal, but in doing so, be denied COE even if he succeeded. TWC2 thought that was unfair. For someone who was supposed to conduct mediation sessions impartially, this TADM officer was introducing bias. Of course, we could not know (at least not then) whether this was a new policy within TADM or just unprofessionalism by one officer. But, hearing this report, we were concerned about the integrity of process.

After some research, we wrote to the ministry in October 2022 citing ministers’ statements over the years. We wondered if there was any new policy walking back those assurances given to Parliament.

For easy reference, here are the three statements made to Parliament:

Parliamentary sitting: 6 February 2017, Oral answers to questions.

Minister for Manpower Lim Swee Say: Meanwhile, foreign workers with valid salary claims are also allowed to change employers. More than 2,200 of such requests were granted in the past three years.

Parliamentary sitting : 6 March 2017, Committee of Supply debate

Minister of State for Manpower Teo Ser Luck: For foreign workers with valid claims of salary non-payment, MOM will help them see through their claim and allow them to change employer and stay on in Singapore, even if their employer terminates their work pass.

Also in same debate:

Nominated Member of Parliament Kok Heng Leun: I would like to clarify with Minister of State Teo that there is indeed a policy change to give migrant workers an option to change employer when their employments are terminated prematurely or due to valid complaints like salary or excessive work hours, and that this option is not dependent on discretionary consideration of MOM.

Teo Ser Luck: The consideration is upon investigating on their valid claims or non-payment of salaries. Most important is to establish the facts. While we are investigating and trying to find out about the facts of the claim, we do not want the workers to be unproductive. So there is an arrangement for them, if they so request, to transfer employers. That can be facilitated by the NWC to enable them to continue to be productive.

(Note by TWC2: In Teo Ser Luck’s last comment, he was indicating that even while the salary claim was in progress, the worker would be permitted to transfer to a new job, and not have to wait months till his claim had been concluded. TWC2 has not seen examples of this being implemented in any generalised way.)

Parliamentary sitting: 2 March 2020, Written answers to questions.

Minister for Manpower, Josephine Teo: When there is a dispute involving salary reduction from the amount stated in the In-Principle Approval letter, the onus is on the employer to show that he obtained the work permit holder’s (WPH) written agreement and notified the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) beforehand. If the employer fails to prove either of the two requirements, the original declared salary holds and the employer will be required to make good any salary shortfall, regardless of reason for the salary reduction. In addition, MOM will also impose a fine of up to $10,000 per worker on the employer.

The requirement for employers to obtain their workers’ written agreement ensures that the WPH can refuse to give his consent. WPHs whose contracts are terminated by their employer for refusing to provide consent should seek help from MOM. MOM allows such WPHs to find a new employer and we work with the Migrant Workers’ Centre to facilitate the process.

Silence for months

TWC2 did not hear back from MOM until we reminded them in January 2023. It was then put on the agenda of a meeting scheduled for April 2023.

At that meeting, senior MOM officials assured us that the policy was still in place. They also confirmed that it was not proper procedure to use COE as leverage to get workers to settle at mediation and forgo their right to take their claims to the Tribunal. We appreciated those assurances.

Armed with this confirmation, we stressed to all workers we were then helping with their salary claims that they should make it a point to ask their TADM mediators for COE if they wished to switch to another job at the conclusion of their claim. As it so happened, two workers’ claims were just concluding, and they – we shall call them Murad and Kono (not their real names) – received letters from TADM granting them COEs.

Great, we said. Please don’t use unlicensed agents; they may charge an arm and a leg. We gave Murad and Kono a list of licensed agents with whom TWC2 has had contact for some time and who, by our observation, have charged no more than what the Employment Agencies Act allowed – i.e.  a fee equivalent to one month’s basic salary for each year of contract, subject to a maximum of two months’ salary.

Around the same time, TWC2 had a conversation with an employment agency, and we stressed to them that there was a market segment consisting of transfer workers with COE in hand which they might want to focus on. We mentioned in passing that the COE was valid for two weeks.

“Two weeks?” the agent said, with a tone of incredulous surprise. His later comments indicated that this was not realistic for finding a new job for a worker.

Both workers got new jobs

We saw Murad and Kono quite regularly over the next few days, and learned that they had found new jobs. Murad was a little evasive about the new job he landed and how he got it, which we thought somewhat strange (he would be more open later). In contrast, Kono told us quite honestly that he found his new job through an illegal recruiter, a Bangladeshi fixer operating in Singapore. Kono was charged $1,500.

Our first reaction to this news was a bit of frustration. “We gave you a list of agents. Did you even contact them?”

“Yes. I give my name to all the agent,” he replied in his defence, “but they all say only two week very difficult.”

So, when the illegal fixer found him a job for $1,500, Kono had no real choice. Take it and pay up or face the very real prospect of having to go home.

“So, in the end you used the dalal?” we asked Kono to confirm our understanding of what happened. Dalal is the North Indian and Bangladeshi word the workers use to refer to these illegal agents.

“Yes, because MOM…. only two week, I no choice.”

Armed with this intel from Kono, we asked Murad again how exactly he found his new job, this time hinting that we would understand if he told us he had used a dalal. Murad confirmed that he too had no luck with the licensed agents and when the two weeks began to run out, he had little choice but to take up a dalal’s offer.

Here’s the mystery: how did dalals find new jobs for these workers so quickly when licensed agents could not?

Neither Kono nor Murad could tell us. They were not privy to whatever communication the dalals had with their new employers. However, since the chief difference between dalals and the ethical agents on the list we gave them lay in the amount of money involved, we can probably reckon that cash made the difference. Perhaps the dalal said to the new employer, ‘here’s a thousand dollars for the taking, but you need to move fast and put in a work permit application for this worker’. Money concentrates the mind like nothing else.

A more ethical employer – the kind that ethical agents deal with – might need time to look at qualifications, experience and other background information, and maybe schedule a job interview.

It’s no use pontificating how people should do this or not do that. What this story shows all too starkly is that poor policy design creates poor outcomes, even if unintended. People will look after their own interests. Workers don’t have any special love of dalals; if they can get new jobs through licensed agents, they will. If Murad and Kono had, say, 30-day COEs, their stories might well have turned out differently.

Cost of housing the worker

We can anticipate one objection to lengthening the COE period from 14 days to 30 days, and as is so often the case, it has to do with cost to the employer. Again and again, MOM resists making improvements to policy because raising employers’ costs is something they’re almost deathly afraid of.

The particular cost involved here is the cost of housing, food and healthcare for the worker. Typically, workers with salary claims would have had their work permits cancelled by the employer once the dispute is officially filed. MOM would then have put the worker on a Special Pass for the duration of the claim. Under law, employers (in this case ex-employers) are held responsible for providing accommodation, food and healthcare for as long as the worker is on a Special Pass.

Therefore, extending the COE period from 14 to 30 days can mean sixteen more days of cost for the ex-employer.

Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that. These are employers who failed to pay wages in the first place, thus triggering the salary claim. We can see the extra cost as a form of penalty for such employers to ensure a decent outcome for the worker – a new transfer job obtained thorugh a licensed agent instead of having to pay a large amount to an illegal recruiter. The argument can be made that this is entirely just and morally satisfying.