Before obtaining their work permits, low-skilled workers traveling to Singapore must present an In-Principle Approval (IPA) to immigration officers in order to enter Singapore. Provided by employers, the IPA includes several basic declarations about the terms of employment, namely the migrant worker’s basic monthly salary, allowances and deductions by the employer. The Singapore Ministry of Manpower requires a copy of the IPA in the worker’s native language be sent to the worker’s home country before he or she departs.
In practice, however, the IPA system holds several challenges that hamper the intent of providing accurate job information before a worker leaves home.
First, many individuals abroad are not familiar with the IPA or its significance. Second, some employers and employment agencies disregard the contents of the IPA, presenting the employee with entirely different provisions in the final labour contract. Some prospective workers are thus told that the IPA is ‘merely a formality’ required for entry into Singapore, and that the details do not represent the actual salary, allowances and deductions. For the worker, obtaining the IPA in their own language becomes a meaningless benefit, and most can only prepare themselves for work under significantly different conditions than stated in the IPA.
Worse yet, it is not entirely clear what relationship the IPA has to the actual employment contract. Due to conflicting documents and course of conduct between the worker and their employer, the enforceable terms become unclear. When a salary dispute arises, unscrupulous employers can then rely on whichever document states the lowest payment, whether it is the IPA or the contract. Workers are of course not in control of this situation, and they can be left with payments far lower than promised.
Uncovering the myriad ways in which the IPA is used to the workers’ disadvantage has been very eye-opening, allowing us a glimpse into how unscrupulous employers can use the IPA to their benefit. The most difficult part, however, has been in finding proper information regarding the IPA system itself, as the gap between its intent and its use in practice can be particularly large.
Facing this challenge, we are now seeking to clarify the evidentiary value of the IPA. By using existing legal principles available in Singapore, we hope to set a clear rule that ensures workers can rely upon its provisions, at least until a clear employment contract is made, and then made available when a dispute arises.
Following our research, we intend to develop a position paper that lays out clear principles for the IPA’s role in employment relationships. By creating more certainty in what is currently a somewhat muddled landscape of contract law, we hope to ensure migrant workers have a clear picture about their new job, and that unscrupulous employers will be forced to abide by the agreements they make.
Reading the Fine Print is JWB’s new series covering our strategic legal research program. Our research helps address the gray areas in local law that can pose challenges for pro bono lawyers helping migrant workers to bring wage and other civil claims to court.
Also in the series — Reading the Fine Print: How Do You Get Paid?