FOREIGN workers should be allowed to change employers only in special circumstances, such as when their bosses go bankrupt, said employment agents and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) this week.

The experts said job mobility will better protect the rights of foreign workers and will counteract a culture of fear which stops them from speaking out against bad bosses.

However, they pointed out that employers are unlikely to endorse sweeping changes to allow foreign workers to change bosses freely.

They were responding to comments by Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin in Parliament on Monday that his ministry is studying whether foreign workers could be allowed to change bosses in "instances where there has been a genuine mismatch in expectations".

Association of Employment Agencies (Singapore) president K. Jayaprema said employers are worried that foreign workers will use this to job-hop frequently and bargain for higher salaries.

She added: "These concerns are valid. Employers commit time and money to train the workers and suddenly they want to leave. Project deadlines will be affected too."

But employment agents and migrant worker rights groups were unanimous that the Manpower Ministry should allow foreign workers who are jobless - because of circumstances outside their control - to find new jobs.

Examples of workers in this predicament are those claiming work injury compensation from their bosses. These workers cannot work but remain in Singapore to receive treatment and wait to be compensated. They are issued special passes by the ministry and most get compensated within three months.

There are also others who are suddenly jobless because their companies have gone bust.

At present, only maids and construction workers are allowed to change employers but they must get a letter of consent from their current bosses. Some find this difficult if the relationship with their bosses has soured.

Foreign workers who are serving as prosecution witnesses for their own court cases involving their bosses are allowed to work through the ministry's temporary job scheme with other bosses.

NGO Migrant Workers' Centre chairman Yeo Guat Kwang suggested that this temporary job scheme be extended to all workers waiting for employment-related claims to be settled. Most of these workers get by on their savings and free meals from NGOs.

Mr Yeo said: "They should be able to remain financially viable during their wait and be given the chance to finance their own livelihoods." He added that Singapore should eventually consider allowing all foreign workers to change employers freely in the long term.

The rationale for this has to do with Singapore's aim of attracting better-qualified foreign workers in the future who will raise productivity. Higher-skilled workers appreciate being able to negotiate and ask for better employment terms, since their skills are in demand.

Mr John Gee, an executive committee member of migrants' organisation Transient Workers Count Too, said giving foreign workers job mobility will encourage more to step forward to air their grievances openly.

Several NGOs have said many foreign workers suffer in silence because they fear that their bosses will send them home. Singapore laws allow employers to cancel their work permits unilaterally and repatriate them immediately.

Mr Gee said: "Job mobility will help address this culture of fear."