A worker writes to TWC2’s digital helpline

Several times a month, TWC2 gets messages from workers asking for help over In-principle Approvals for a Work Permit (IPA) that they had not applied for. An IPA is a document issued by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) saying that a Work Permit for a foreign worker has been pre-approved. Since Work Permits are tied to specified jobs, he or she cannot move to another company. So, if the IPA is for a job that the worker does not want, the IPA has to be cancelled, otherwise the worker cannot apply for a different job.

It would have been the employer or the employer’s employment agent which had gone online into MOM’s system to make the application, not the worker himself (who has no access to the system). See Glossary for a more detailed explanation of what an IPA is.

In this story, we will describe four recent cases – all within the past one month – in order to shed light on how such problems arise. The workers in the first three cases were still in Bangladesh when they messaged us for help. The worker in the fourth case was in Singapore when it happened.

Case #1

Nubi (not his real name) had gone home after completing one work stint in Singapore, having worked for nearly three years here. During that time, he was promoted to Safety Supervisor after completing a relevant course. Nubi told us over our digital helpline that he had engaged a Bangladeshi agent to find a new job for him. Not long after, the agent found a possible job and even arranged an online interview with the employer. The agent had also asked for $2,400 as the fee, but to date no money has changed hands.

Following the interview, Nubi decided against taking the job. He tells us that he is a certified safety supervisor and the job and salary offered was not commensurate with that. Here is the key WhatsApp exchange in which Nubi says to whoever was offering him the job: “No, boss” – meaning do not apply to MOM for a work permit for this job.

The agent asks Nubi “Can apply?” and Nubi says “No”.

Then out of the blue, what Nubi describes as an “Indian agent” sent him via WhatsApp an IPA saying MOM had approved the Work Permit application. Why did Nubi describe this party as an “Indian” agent? Because the WhatsApp message he received came from a number with dialling code +91 (India). Nubi had no idea who he really was.

We later saw a copy of the IPA. It mentions a Singapore-registered employment agency, which a webcheck reveals to have a boss whose name sounds Indian. So even though the WhatsApp messages that Nubi received had a +91 number (India), the messages might have been sent from Singapore. Or might not, as Case #3 below would suggest.

Proceeding to an IPA was clearly against Nubi’s expressed wishes, and he then tried to contact the Bangladeshi agent to find out who this “Indian” agent was and why an IPA/Work Permit application was even submitted to MOM. But the Bangladeshi agent was uncontactable.

At a loss as to what to do, Nubi searched us out and messaged us for help.

Case #2

This is the opening message from Awlad (not his real name) sent into our digital helpline:

The issue is cancel ipa.
i need help to cancel my ipa. Because someone’s without permission make my ipa but never let me know.i don’t agree to go that company so please help to cancel my ipa and chose another company. Thanks

We responded by asking once more whether he had signed “any document consenting to your agreement to be employed by the employer”.

Awlad replied:

no sign any document

Similar to Nubi’s case, Awlad had engaged an agent to look for a job for him. Awlad had likewise also stated the criteria for an acceptable job. Our translator described Awlad’s explanation thus: “He [Awlad] has completed core-trade course. His agent promised him to get a job with $28/day basic [salary], but agent applied for $19/day basic without his consent.”

TWC2 has sent Awlad a step-by-step guideline for how to write a letter to MOM requesting cancellation of an IPA. MOM wants such a letter from the worker himself, not from a third party claiming to be acting on the worker’s behalf. That’s fair enough. If only MOM has the same criterion when it comes to applying for IPAs in the first place.

Why do agents act like this?

Miscommunication may explain some cases. But there are times such as Awlad’s case when the worker had clearly not agreed to the new job. There may be a less-than-innocent reason for an employer or their agent applying for an IPA.

One possibility we think quite likely is that these employers and agents are trying to exploit the possibility that workers have no clue how to ask MOM to cancel an unwanted IPA, and so the workers may, after some initial hesitation, decide to take the jobs after all, even though the salary or other terms of employment were initially unacceptable to them. Agents (and some employers) are motivated more by how much money they can make out of the recruitment fee they charge workers than by their suitability, skills or interest in the job. Hauling in workers like fish in a trawler’s net is more important than their willingness to do the jobs in the IPAs.

If a worker, after reluctantly accepting a job, proves uninterested or demotivated, the employer can always terminate the Work Permit at any time and hire a new worker, reaping more profit from the new worker’s recruitment fee. The whole recruitment system for migrant workers has become a kind of snake pit.

Case #3

Shobuj (not his real name) is the worker in our third case study. His saga began more than six months ago when he somehow got in touch with an agent who he believes is based in New Delhi. As for how he linked up with the agent, he mentioned something about being introduced through a Bangladeshi friend.

Shobuj explained to TWC2 that at first the agent claimed to be based in Singapore, but later, perhaps through a slip of the tongue, said he was actually in New Delhi.

Shobuj tells TWC2 that this agent told him he (the agent) was in New Delhi

The New Delhi agent found him a job with a sole proprietorship called Elohim Construction Services (proprietor: Joseph Sandanasamy Vincent Suppiah). An IPA was issued and Shobuj accepted the job. He then paid $1,700 as agent fee. At least $700 of that amount was paid into a Singapore POSB bank account. The account holder’s name was “Dulal” – which sounds like a Bangladeshi name.

However, when we examined the IPA, we noticed that no employment agency was stated on it. Therefore only the employer could have applied to MOM directly for the IPA/Work Permit.

The next step would be for the employer to get entry approval for Shobuj to come to Singapore and send him a flight ticket. But nothing happened for months until the IPA expired. Shobuj then told the agent that he was discharged. It might mean writing off the $1,700 that had been paid, but Shobuj had no more trust in this so-called agent.

Then out of the blue the agent sent him a new IPA, for a job with another sole proprietorship known as Emanuel Construction (proprietor: Justus Joachim Joseph Vincent). Since the names of the two proprietors had similarities, and the names of the two companies had Old Testament references, we did a quick check and found that the owners of Elohim Construction and Emmanuel Construction both had the same residential address.

Shobuj was irate, as can be seen from this WhatsApp exchange he had with the agent:

Shobuj (green text) is angry with the agent

In the second IPA (Emmanuel Construction), “N.A.” was also stated in the field for employment agency name. This means no Singapore-registered agency was involved, and that employer must have submitted the IPA/Work Permit application himself.

A more troubling possibility is this: The owners of Elohim Construction and Emmanuel Construction have shared their MOM logins with someone in New Delhi (if Shobuj is right as to the location of the agent) and this foreign party is logging in to MOM’s computer system to apply for IPAs. If so, this would pose a serious security issue.

On top of that, there is this question: Why did the agent ask Shobuj to deposit $700 into a Singapore bank account? Who is this Dulal, the account-holder?

TWC2 guided Shobuj in writing a letter to MOM to ask for cancellation of the Emmanuel Construction IPA (the Elohim IPA had expired).

Case #4

We will refer to the worker in our fourth case study as Atto. He had a workplace injury on 25 October 2023, while working for a company which we will call S-Off. When he first showed up at TWC2 for assistance, one of the things he mentioned was that his Work Permit had been “cancelled” by his employer. A few days later, he told us that MOM sent him a message on 17 November 2023 saying a new Work Permit for a new job with another company had been issued. We will refer to this new company as Kotewe.

We later saw from the documentation that the application for a new Work Permit (for Kotewe) was made on 30 October 2023. “But I never apply any job,” Atta vigourously protested to TWC2. Indeed, that was just five days after his accident, and the biggest thing on his mind then was to get medical treatment, not to look for a new job. He knew he was not in a position to work, being on medical leave and awaiting surgery.

We asked him what he wanted us to help him with. He said he wanted the new Work Permit cancelled. His TWC2 caseworker has written to MOM conveying this request.

But who applied for a new Work Permit for him?

A closer look at the details of the new employer would suggest an answer. We found that the 100% shareholder (owner) of S-Off also holds 50% of the shares of Kotewe and may well be the controlling shareholder at the latter firm. In other words, Atta was transferred from one company to a related company.

Why? We have no idea. Especially as the transfer took place in the days immediately following the accident.

However, the point we’re making here is nevertheless clear. Workers can find themselves issued with new IPAs or new Work Permits when they did not give consent. Nor is this rare. We regularly get such requests for help. There is a systems issue that needs to be investigated and fixed.