SINGAPORE - In a bid to tighten the net on errant employers, the Manpower Ministry (MOM) is turning to outsourcing.

It is conducting a trial next year to see if external contractors can do the work of its own foreign workers enforcement officers.

It has asked interested firms to form inspection teams to conduct checks "to detect and deter illegal employment at workplaces", according to a letter sent to potential contractors and obtained by The Sunday Times.

The move comes less than a month after the MOM turned to external public relations experts to help communicate policies.

When contacted, the MOM confirmed its outsourcing plan, saying that it is "part of our ongoing effort to raise our enforcement effectiveness".

It did not however reveal how many of its "over 300" staff in the Foreign Manpower Management Division are enforcement officers, adding that giving the numbers away will affect operations.

The ministry added that it conducts an average of "over 2,000 inspections and 6,000 investigations" annually in the past three years.

According to MOM's letter, the inspectors are required to conduct daily checks at worksites to verify the validity of work passes and interview workers and employers.

They will be given "authority cards" and each team will be required to have staff who can speak English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. "At least 50 per cent of the inspectors should be diploma holders," the MOM added.

The latest move has the backing of most industry watchers.

"Outsourcing is not new for government enforcement," said Mr David Leong, managing director of human resource firm People Worldwide Consulting. "The Land Transport Authority and Urban Redevelopment Authority already outsource their traffic and parking enforcement."

Labour MP Yeo Guat Kwang believes outsourcing illegal employment checks is a straightforward process. "Either a worker has a valid work pass or not, so it is a clear cut 'yes' or 'no'," said Mr Yeo.

"Outsourcing can allow the MOM to step up enforcement checks with its limited resources."

But MP Zainudin Nordin, who is the chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower, said that it is vital for MOM to ensure that its external inspectors are well trained. "This includes making sure that they understand their powers under the law and their role in helping the ministry."

Still, some were surprised.

Former MOM inspection and enforcement officer Martin Gabriel, now a human resource consultant with HRMatters21, said enforcement is a "crucial" part of the ministry's work.

He wondered if MOM's own officers will lose touch on what is happening on the ground.

"They can only gain experience if they conduct the checks themselves," he said. "But even as the ministry outsources enforcement checks, it must still be accountable and responsible for enforcing the law. Accountability cannot be outsourced."