Eman (name changed) makes his way to TWC2 one evening in early April 2024 holding a resignation letter in hand. It is his second visit. On his first visit, he sought help to draft a resignation letter, help that we provided. However, when he presented the letter to his employer (which we will call Rosdai Pacis here) he was told that four weeks’ notice was required since he had worked for nearly ten years with them. Eman’s letter had put in two weeks’ notice.

Eman is confused. What is the minimum notice period required by law?

Section 10 of the Employment Act sets out the notice periods; these provisions apply if there is no written employment contract setting out such details (Eman didn’t have a written employment contract). Indeed, if an employee had been with the company for more than five years, then four weeks’ notice would be what the law required.

So, in order to answer Eman’s question, we ask him how long he has been working with the company Rosdai Pacis. What we get is a complicated answer, unearthing a relationship that hints of forced labour.

The employment history

In answer to our question, Eman fishes out a piece of paper showing the key dates. Because the piece of paper has personal details on it, we won’t image it here. Instead, the dates are shown in tabular form:

All five periods of employment, Eman says, were with the same employer Rosdai Pacis. Four times over the past decade, Eman left their employment. Four times, he went back. He goes on to describe how that happened.

Each time, after having had some time with his family back home in Bangladesh, he faced a hurdle in looking for a new job. Agents could find openings for him, but always, the prospective new employers’ applications for In-principle Approvals (IPA) were rejected by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Foreign workers must obtain an IPA before they can come into Singapore for a job. The reasons for the rejections, says Eman, were always the same – that there was already an outstanding IPA in his name.

The first few times this happened, Eman was confused. He had not applied for any other job, so why would there be an outstanding IPA? With help from his agents, he eventually found out that each time, it was Rosdai Pacis that had applied for an IPA, and got it approved by MOM.

At first, the advice from his agents was to wait three months, as IPAs have an expiry date. If the nominated worker does not arrive in Singapore and convert the IPA into a Work Permit within three months, the IPA will expire. But Eman soon found that waiting out the three months didn’t solve the problem. Rosdai Pacis’ IPA would be extended or renewed!

Four times, Eman had to negotiate with Rosdai Pacis. We won’t go into the details of the various negotiations, but the long and short of it was that the company would not withdraw the IPAs. However, they offered Eman pay rises each time, and so Eman decided to rejoin the company instead of antagonising them further. He felt that he had little choice as he knew of no other way to suppress their IPAs and free himself to look for work with other employers.

The last time this happened was after he left the company in March 2022. He really didn’t want to go back to Rosdai Pacis, but after more than a year of futile efforts to get an IPA for another company, he gave up and came back to Rosdai Pacis in July 2023.

A quick note about his salary before we move on: When he started with Rosdai Pacis in 2013, his monthly basic salary was less than $500 a month. Ten years on, it is around $900 a month though Eman thinks he can command a better salary than that given his years of experience.

Never again, says Eman

Now he is here at TWC2. The small issue is the matter of the notice period he should give, for which he gets immediate clarification from us. It should only be one week, we tell him, since his current contract with Rosdai Pacis is not even a year old. We help Eman to access MOM’s Work Permit data and it’s clearly stated that that his current Work Permit was issued on 5 July 2023, nine months ago.

A related issue is the question of who should pay for his flight ticket home. The employer told Eman that he (Eman) should be paying for it. We tell Eman that that is utter rubbish. The law is clear that the employer should pay even if the worker resigns of his own accord.

The big issue is how to prevent Rosdai Pacis from blocking his future jobs through the same underhand tactics. We explain to him what the process for cancelling unauthorised IPAs is, and how TWC2 can assist, even when he is back in Bangladesh. We advise him though that it can take as long as a month to get MOM to cancel an improper IPA – such is the bureaucracy involved. We don’t mention the asymmetry of it: employers can cancel IPAs at the click of the button, but workers have to jump through hoops to get out of one that they had never even agreed to.

We at TWC2 will be very interested to see what Rosdai Pacis does after Eman has gone home and whether Eman has to appeal to us for help to suppress yet another unauthorised IPA.

Abuse of the IPA system

There is no reason to think that such a nefarious use of the IPA system was ever intended by its design. But nefarious use is the unintended consequence of the way it has been designed. The problem, as TWC2 has pointed out repeatedly over the years, is that employers and Singapore-licensed employer agents can go online into MOM’s IPA system and put in an application for any worker so long as they have the passport details and some other information about the worker. In Eman’s case, the employer Rosdai Pacis would no doubt have in hand all the information they need to do so from their personnel records.

Thus, MOM’s IPA application system is wide open to abuse. A follow-up article will discuss what solutions are available.

For now, the point to note is that Eman was essentially compelled to work for Rosdai Pacis. The flaws of MOM’s system were exploited to deny him his freedom to move to another employer. That, in our books, looks awfully like forced labour and a violation of Singapore’s commitment to the United Nations’ Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons.