Dul (not his real name) is caught between a rock and a hard place. He has trouble describing to TWC2 what exactly the problem is that he is facing because it has multiple layers.

It is a salary problem, and also a transfer problem. And there’s that $8,000.

“Let’s take one at a time,” TWC2 Vice-president Alex Au tells him. “Start with why you think you have been shortpaid on your salary.”

Dul then explains that the In-principle Approval which the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) issued in August 2023 showed a basic salary of $1,800 per month, reflecting the salary that was offered to him while he was in Bangladesh applying for the job. (See Glossary for an explanation about In-principle Approvals.) But ever since his arrival in Singapore (September 2023) and starting work, he has been paid at a rate of $1,500 instead.

With this lower rate, his overtime pay is also miscalculated, he says.

Noting his relatively high basic pay, we ask Dul about his work history. We learn that he has had about ten years’ experience working in Singapore. Most of those years, he was doing maintenance on chiller and airconditioning systems. From the name of his present employer, it too sounds like an airconditioning company, so he is in the same line of work.

Transfer to new employer fell apart

“Tell us about the transfer problem,” we say to Dul.

It goes like this: About five weeks after starting with the present employer, which we will refer to as Rese, he received a WhatsApp message from management telling him that he was not “suitable for the company”, and that the “Big boss” was giving him a chance to look for a new employer within one month.

Naturally, he was upset, and queried why the company was laying him off. The management’s reply was “U no wrong”, just that “not suitable for us.”

The WhatsApp message telling Dul he has one month to find a new job.

Making the best of a bad hand, Dul managed to find a possible new job with a company we will refer to as “ZK”. He informed his employer Rese of this and Rese issued a letter saying that they agreed to Dul transferring to ZK.

ZK then submitted an application to MOM for an In-principle Approval for a Work Permit. According to Dul, MOM then sent a message to his current employer, Rese. The message contained a link to click in order to signal agreement to the change of employer. However, Rese did not do so and the application lapsed.

“How do you know that?” we ask Dul, curious since he was not a party to the process.

“New company tell me boss not click the link,” he explains. He adds that ZK also told him they wouldn’t try again because they needed another worker quite urgently and could not afford to wait.

Recruitment fee

As for the issue of $8,000, this was the fee that Dul paid an agent in Bangladesh for this job. We ask him to tell us more about the sequence of events.

“Have two agents,” Dul begins. “One in Bangladesh, and one in Singapore.” He gives us the name of the Singaporean guy and even his phone number. Unlike many other workers who only had contact with the Bangladeshi agent, Dul has met and spoken with the Singaporean agent. However, money was only discussed with the Bangladeshi agent. In fact, Dul recalls a moment when the Singaporean agent said to him “I don’t collect money from workers.”

Dul is quick to clarify that this was not said in a way to mean that the Singaporean agent wasn’t earning from a worker’s fee payment, only that they did not want workers to pay them directly.

“He say he want me to pay Bangladesh agent, not pay him.”

Your writer asks Alex whether $8,000 is typical.

“It does seem higher than I would expect in a case of a worker who has as much experience as [Dul],” he says. “On the other hand, it may be because of the high monthly base salary of $1,800 being offered.”

Alex points out that on Dul’s In-principle Approval for the Rese job, the “Agency fee for Singapore EA” was stated to be zero. While it is possible that it was Rese the employer that paid for the Singapore agent’s services, this is so uncommon in Singapore (in relation to Bangladeshi workers) that it is far more likely that the Singapore agent was compensated through a cut of the $8,000 that Dul paid the Bangladeshi agent.

The part of the In-Principle Approval document wherein the employer and agent declared that the agent did not take any money from the worker.

If what we surmise is correct, then a case can be made that the In-principle Approval submission was a false declaration; the zero was not true.

As for who else in the hiring chain also benefitted, it’s hard to say.

Zoom interview

Dul then describes the Zoom job interview he attended. There were five people in the Zoom meeting. There was the Bangladeshi agent, the Singapore agent, the Rese boss and the project manager. Plus himself. It was the project manager who asked most of the questions. Dul says most questions were about his experience in managing teams, not about his technical skills. This seems consistent with the part of the In-Principle Approval imaged above where his job title was described as Supervisor and General Foreman.

Dul feels unfairly treated that now Rese is saying he lacked the technical skills to do the job when they did not cover this topic in the interview.

“We are in no position to form an opinion how justified the employer was in saying that [Dul] lacked the necessary skills,” explains Alex while underlining that companies have the freedom to determine what skills they expect from their employees. Dul himself mentions that one key difference between his previous experience and Rese’s projects is that whereas he used to do maintenance work, Rese mostly does new installations. “I can imagine a gulf of difference between the skills needed for one and those needed for the other,” notes Alex.

Nevertheless, from Dul’s perspective, to lose a job within a month – a job for which he paid $8,000 to get – is devastating. And then when he manages to find a new job (with ZK) it doesn’t go through either. And all this on top of shortpayment of salary.

The salary issue again

Alex circles back to the salary issue with Dul. He teaches Dul how to access the salary information system within his SgWorkPass app. To Dul’s shock, he sees that it is $1,500 a month basic.

“But my IPA say $1,800,” he protests.

Indeed it does, since Dul still has a copy of it and is able to show us. So why is it different in the MOM’s information database?

At left, the part of the In-Principle Approval document from August 2023 wherein the salary was declared (by employer and agent) to be $1,800 a month. At right, the salary information retrieved from MOM’s database in January 2024.

Alex explains to Dul that employers can go online at any time, log into the MOM system and change a worker’s salary. If the salary is being reduced, there is a checkbox which the employer has to click to “confirm” that the employee has consented in writing to a lower salary. Yes, that’s right; it’s only a declaration that the employer makes. TWC2 has never heard of MOM checking with workers to ask whether they had really – and freely, without coercion – agreed to lower pay.

Dul says he never consented. No one had even asked him. All he noticed was that he was being paid at that lower rate and that was partly why he came to TWC2 for advice.

“Did you sign any paper at any time after you started work?” asks Alex.

Dul thinks for a while, and then recalls that right after arriving in Singapore, the Singaporean agent asked him to sign something. He wasn’t given a copy of it, so we cannot now examine what it said, but Dul recalls the agent saying something to the effect that it was standard procedure so that they could get MOM to issue a Work Permit for him.

“Anything about salary, never say,” insists Dul.

Could that piece of paper also contain consent for a lower salary? Without seeing it, we cannot know. But the simple fact that it comes as a surprise to Dul that MOM’s system now says his salary is $300 lower than promised to him – and written in the In-Principle Approval – does suggest something less than above-board.

Then Dul adds a new twist to the story. Three layers is not all there is. There is a fourth layer to the tale.

After Rese reneged on consent to his transfer to ZK, Rese told Dul that his choice was now like this: Either agree to a salary of $1,400 a month, or have his Work Permit cancelled and he would be sent home.

Alex gives Dul a look that seems to say Why didn’t you mention this earlier? and How many more twists to the story are there?

But nonetheless, they go on to discuss the various options Dul has under the circumstances. We won’t go into the details here.

Half an hour later

“There is something fishy about the hiring process and the way they have treated this man,” says Alex to your writer half an hour later after Dul’s consultation ended and he had gone off to get dinner. “Unfortunately, there are no good solutions,” and Dul has to think long and hard which is the least bad path to take.

“Losing a job is difficult for anyone,” Alex adds, “but in this case, [Dul] is also losing the $8,000 he paid for it.”

The pain, and the sense of injustice, is much worse because of this. And that’s why, explains Alex, reforming the recruitment system to eliminate such excessive costs has to be the top issue to address. As can be seen from this story, workers are able to find new jobs if they lose their present employment. It’s the agent money that is irrecoverable.