Of late we’ve developed a strange habit. We can’t meet a Bangladeshi migrant labourer without asking him a somewhat intrusive question.

How much did you pay your agent?

Is it kinda rude? Maybe. Call it an occupational hazard then. We must have sprung that question on hundreds of workers when we were making “Human Trade” and “Migrant Dreams”. It was central to our investigation.

So how much did you pay your agent?

Too much, is a standard answer. The ballpark figure? 400,000 Bangladeshi takas for a two-year contract in Singapore. 250,000 takas for a similar deal in Malaysia. That’s around S$8,000 and S$5,000 respectively – a staggering sum for the average Bangladeshi worker who makes around S$150 a month, if he is lucky. The only way he can pay his agent is by selling family land, or pawning his wife’s jewellery, or by taking out a high-interest loan from a moneylender. Or by doing all three things.

But why does he have to pay so much?

Agents we spoke to in Bangladesh say about a third of the money goes towards air tickets, health screening charges and various commissions for sub-recruitment agents. The rest is sent to Singapore – as fees for employers who bring the workers into the country. A primary justification for the fees: that they help offset visa procurement costs and levies.

In other words, migrant labourers who come to work in Singapore have to pay our government for the privilege of emptying our trash and building our condos.

So logically, if levies go up, workers are simply charged more by their agents. Employers will barely feel the pinch. Which is why MOM’s latest move (read the press release here) makes no sense at all.

What does the Singapore government hope to achieve by hiking levies for S Pass and work permit holders? Ostensibly, the measure is meant to discourage companies from recruiting workers indiscriminately. The truth is, a large number of employers will simply pass on that extra cost to the foreign labourers they hire. Salaries in Singapore will remain artificially low, and locals will continue to complain that they are being squeezed out of the job market.

Worse, by raising levies, the government gives unscrupulous employers and manpower agents more leeway to cheat. In “Human Trade”, we showed viewers how some employers import large numbers of workers simply to make money. The new recruits pay up, arrive in Singapore, hang around for a few months and are then forced to go home. A new batch of workers is quickly flown in to replace them. Each cycle results in an illegal windfall for errant companies. Now, with the hike in levies, these employers and agents have an excuse to demand even more money from job seekers.

In Dhaka last year, Gulam Mustafa, the head of the Bangladeshi Association of International Recruiting Agencies (BAIRA), told us then that officials from Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower were planning to pay him a visit to discuss ways to curb illegal activity in the manpower trade. We were mildly encouraged by the news.

Surely better cooperation with BAIRA would help MOM gain a clearer understanding of a very complex situation? Maybe the Ministry would start cracking down hard on companies that demand kickbacks from agents? Or perhaps they would stem the indiscriminate issuance of visas and work permits? And what about a minimum wage?

This latest solution they’ve offered up is at best, a lazy knee-jerk reaction to the recent spate of bad press MOM’s been getting. At worst, it’s cynical and calculative. A token gesture. Something to show a disgruntled public that they are trying to remedy what is turning out to be a hugely flawed immigration policy. And of course it doesn’t hurt that in doing so, the government gets to make a bit of extra cash.