singapore merlion

Is job security or the stability of tenure a thing of the past?

Thursday Doomsday

Fresh from the news of the coordinated bombings and attacks on Mumbai, it was no ordinary Thursday for a large bank’s IT group, who, apart from having to bear the terrible news, considered it a day of reckoning, one that would determine their fate at work.

Among the employees of that group in the Merlion City are Kate and Lei, both women and contractual employees. They worked in different departments but held office on the same floor of the same building. Both are foreign workers, hail from the same country, and are permanent residents of Singapore.

Apart from these similarities, their backgrounds and circumstances vary greatly. Kate is single, not marrying anytime soon, but does not wish to retain that status forever. She sends two of her nieces to school back at home. She pays for their tuition, lab fees, books and allowances, and would very much like to keep her job. Lei is married and is pregnant with her first baby for a little over a month. Although she is not entirely convinced that they —husband and wife— are financially ready to have a child, she accepts her destiny wholeheartedly and prepares herself as much as she can for the lifelong vocation of motherhood. At these very early stages of her pregnancy, she finds the changes in her body difficult to cope up with and has taken several leaves of absence from work since the doctor confirmed her condition. She’s been wishing to get fired, not wanting to file her resignation because she’ll have to pay an entire month’s worth of wages for not fulfilling a year’s service, a condition stipulated in her contract.

On that fateful day, Lei was given a wake-up call at 7:30 a.m. by her agency, a term she has gotten used to calling her employer which proclaimed itself as an IT solutions and services provider in its website the first time she visited. She was requested to “come down to the office for something important”. She asked if she could just go some other day because she was on MC (medical certificate: the shortened form has become synonymous with medical leave). The other person on the line stressed it was really important and she had to come right away. At that moment, finally, it hit her.

Kate got her call at around 8:30 a.m. She immediately knew when her phone rang. And so she showered, got dressed, skipped breakfast and went straight to the agency’s office, one bus ride and fourteen MRT stations away.

Kate was a bit surprised to find a lot of other people when she arrived. With their office attires, they looked like they were waiting to be interviewed. Except that some of them had their laptops in tow and most everyone wore a grim expression on their face. Kate wondered how many of them were not even aware of the reason they were there.

Just then, the lady who was responsible for recruiting her came through the door.  “Hi Kate! What are you doing here?”

“I’m here to get retrenched. But how nice of you to ask,” Kate kept to herself what would have been her answer. Instead, she smiled back and waved.

Kate sighed with relief when the recruiter went on her way to wherever she was supposed to. Kate had to wait for a while before it was finally her turn.

“Hi Kate!” An HR associate greeted her cheerfully, motioning her to come into the meeting room. “How are you today?”

Kate only managed to smile.

“Hi! How are you,” said the HR Vice-President who was already waiting in the conference room.

“I’m fine,” replied Kate after she realized the lady seemed to be waiting for a reply. She found the situation awkward and amusing, but not without a trace of irony.

“The reason why we called you is to tell you, that unfortunately, it’s your last day on the job…” The vice-president went about telling her that it wasn’t because of her performance or anything she might have done or failed to do, that it was a difficult decision that the client was forced to make.  She was told that to help her tide over, she was going to be given another month’s worth of salary while she looked for a new job, on her own, without the agency’s help. She was asked to sign some papers and to surrender her company ID and security badges. The whole thing took less than ten minutes.

Later that afternoon, Lei’s turn came. It wasn’t that different from Kate’s experience. Only that in Lei’s circumstance, she felt happy. How could she not? Apart from getting her wish, they were paying her an extra month including all the leaves she had taken during the last month, both official and unofficial.

Permanent Redefined

Mike got his first job in Singapore as a consultant through a body shop disguised as a consulting firm. He left his previous job of six years back at home.

“I’m offering you a permanent job, you got that?” said the man Mike spoke to on the phone. “Lower your asking salary a bit.”

Mike went to work in the consulting firm’s office, supporting an IT service for a large multinational company (MNC) whose headquarters in Asia is in Singapore.

Three months later, the MNC decided to move its support operations to India. “So much for job security,” Mike thought, but he must have been the only person in the office who was secretly happy to be losing his job. It was the worst he ever had to endure but he couldn’t resign without paying a huge penalty. He had no qualms about the consulting firm not finding him another “project” despite his permanent status. Besides, he was given two months notice, which was more than enough for him to find a new job.

Fortunately, he did find new employment. Since then, he would go on interviews from time to time, checking out what good opportunities might come his way.

On one such interview, Sumi, a contractual employee of another large bank who was authorized to hire people needed for a particular project, played the role of the interviewer.

“How’s your employment right now? I mean, is it contractual or permanent?” Sumi asked.


“Oh. The job I’m offering you is contractual. Are you interested?”

Mike reluctantly said yes.

“But you know the difference between a permanent and a contractual employee here in Singapore, right?” Sumi asked, sensing Mike’s hesitation.

Mike gave a chuckle. Although he’d never really thought about it before, he knew where Sumi was going.

“None.  There’s no real difference.” Sumi said, answering his own question.

Mike realized that in more ways than one, Sumi was right, finally realizing the irony in his previous experience.

Body Shop

Landing in a permanent job doesn’t eliminate the possibility of getting fired or retrenched. It’s even worse for people who get deceived into taking a seemingly permanent job. Some are hired into permanent positions by companies similar to that of Kate’s and Mike’s who have managed to redefine the word permanent. Such companies advertise as consulting firms or IT services & solutions providers and conveniently exclude manpower services from their websites as part of what they offer. People like Kate who end up working for them usually become permanent employees of the firm while managing to be contractual employees of other firms, the latter being the former’s clients. The same case is true for people like Mike who get assigned to “projects”. Some of these falsely advertising companies go as far as providing job offer letters stating that the employment being offered is permanent, only to make applicants —later on when it’s usually too late for them to back out— sign a employment contracts stipulating that their employment is co-terminus with the contracts between the company and its clients where the applicants are to be assigned. Applicants like Mike are left no choice but to capitulate, having traveled all the way from their home countries,  having already invested time and money and having quit their original jobs. And when these employees’ contractual employment become terminated, rather than helping them find a new workplace, their permanent employer would no sooner make them sign a release waiver saying that the company’s obligation with them has ended. The term body shop has been used to refer to this type of companies. For employees of such companies, the term has become synonymous with exploitation and deception. There is no such thing as job security with these body shops.