Our intern was curious why, despite considerable clarity about salary entitlements provided in the In-Principle Approval letter (IPA), workers coming to TWC2 for help seemed unsure what their salary should be.

The IPA – the full name is In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit – is issued by the Ministry of Manpower. It signifies approval for a foreigner to work in Singapore. At the same time, it contains salary and other details that the employer had declared to the Ministry of Manpower when making the application. In the absence of a formal written employment contract, these details illuminate the terms of employment.

Interns at TWC2 are generally expected, in addition to their other duties, to complete a paper based on an enquiry into a specific topic during their six- to eight-week internship. The attached report is from Charmaine Han, who interned with TWC2 between March and May 2024.

Employers or their agents are required to send a copy of the IPA letter to the prospective worker before he or she enters Singapore. Except in rare cases involving tampering or forgery, workers get a chance to see the details of their employment (as declared by the employer to MOM, even if they differ from verbal promises made to the the worker – which is another source of dispute) before they leave their home country for Singapore. If they do not throw their copy away, workers should have reference to it at all times during employment.

So, why are workers finding it difficult to know, if they think they’ve been incorrectly compensated for their labour, how much in short-payment they have suffered?

Partly it is because entitlements are stated as rates of pay, whether it is for the month or for the overtime hour, and so on. In order to calculate what a migrant worker should be getting, he or she also needs to have records of the months, days or hours worked, and multiply these by the appropriate rates of pay. Given the way some employers are cavalier about providing time cards and detailed itemised payslips, it is hardly any wonder why workers seem lost as to what they should be receiving and why.

However, our intern noticed that even the rates of pay were poorly understood. The IPA contains several different rates of pay. Which rate applies under what circumstances? Of the many details stated on the document, which do the workers pay attention to? How do they interpret the information thereon?

She spoke with 21 migrant workers who came to TWC2 for assistance, guided by a basic questionnaire.

Her enquiry was two-fold. First, she set out to get a brief understanding of what she refers to as workers’ “frame of reference”. This would be their expectations borne out of the customary employment practices in their home countries. These shape what workers coming to Singapore might expect going into work here.

She found that her respondents from India and Bangladesh did not expect formal employment contracts. They were not used to written documents setting out terms of employment.

Then she went through with her respondents each specific item in the IPA to find out what they understood of it. Her report is sobering. Workers found it too complicated. It relied on concepts that no one had fully explained to them.

The report can be downloaded by clicking the icon at right.