Half of construction workers deployed outside their skill areas

Posted by on April 13, 2014 in Articles, Facts, research, analysis

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The report Training centres in Bangladesh have become money-minting machines (published September 2013) was based on research done in Dhaka. Drawing from anecdotal information, we asserted in the paper that “Most workers report that their Singapore jobs are unrelated to the skills they trained for.” This anecdotal information was from workers whom Transient Workers Count Too met with in Singapore, and who had mentioned in passing their training experiences in the course of consulting with us regarding their injury or salary issues.

We have now done a small survey to throw some light on the issue, and found that while we may have exaggerated to say “most”, in fact about half were doing jobs outside what they trained for.

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Mandatory skills training for construction workers

The need to go for skills training arose from a requirement dating from a few years back by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) that all new construction workers come with a skills certificate obtained at one of BCA’s licenced skills testing centres. These can be found in Dhaka, Chennai and several other cities. The requirement led to a boom in the skills training business and the handsome earnings of these centres in Dhaka (as estimated in the earlier article). With training mandatory, getting poor young men to hand over fistfuls of cash to owners of training centres became much easier. Transient Workers Count Too’s concern is that workers now come to Singapore having paid too much money in advance, resulting in a huge debt burden that leaves them even more powerless in the face of an abusive employer.

The effect of mandatory skills training can be seen in the difference in placement fees (“agent fees”) paid by first-time arrivals and second- or third-time arrivals. In the case of Bangladeshis, first-time workers pay an average of $6,500 (see Survey uncovers exorbitant agent fees suffered by Bangladeshi workers); for their subsequent stints, workers pay an average of $3,900. Training centres also act as job placement agents and bundle their training and placement charges together.

$3,900 is already bad enough and is far more than can be justified by the work involved in matching worker to job, or the cost of a one-way airticket to Singapore (about $200 – $300). $6,500 is a lot more to bear, representing perhaps 12 months of wages to come. In the construction industry, the work pass is typically for just 12 months’ duration. If all the money earned is used to pay back what he first put up to the training/job placement centre, what is he and his family to live on? He absolutely needs to renew his work pass after 12 months to have any hope of financial deliverance, and this over-riding need effectively means he is totally at the whim and fancy of the employer.

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Saving on foreign worker levies

The above however does not explain the mismatch between skills obtained at training centres and what workers are asked to do once they’ve started on their jobs. TWC2’s guess is that the most likely explanation lies in employers’ chief interest being to save on foreign worker levies.  The Ministry of Manpower imposes lower levy rates for  higher-skilled workers, so employers are motivated accordingly to save money. Matching worker to actual skill requirement becomes secondary. We argued in the earlier article that this can’t be good for Singapore’s larger interest in productivity.

But we also recognised that we didn’t have good data on this mismatch question. All we had were casual mentions that came up in the course of conversations with workers on some other topic. On the other hand, skills mismatch is not a priority issue for TWC2. Mismatched workers do not complain about it; what matters to them is getting paid what they’ve been promised and being treated well when they’re injured.

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Nonetheless, we felt we should commission a small, straw-poll type survey, to be done by a young volunteer, Amanda Tinoco. The brief to her was to reach about 30 construction workers so that we could get a sense of the situation even if we do not have the time (or the need) to do a large survey. Out of curiosity, we felt we could also survey workers from the marine (shipyards) sector, just to see if anything interesting came up. The marine sector is not governed by BCA, and thus BCA’s mandatory certification requirement does not apply.

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Survey method

Amanda was given a one-page survey form with just nine questions. She was advised to eliminate any worker who had first arrived in Singapore before 2009 since the training regime would be too different before that. For convenience, she approached workers at TWC2’s free meals outlet that served Bangladeshi food. It was intended that she should primarily be approaching Bangladeshi workers rather than other nationalities because the earlier study focussed on training centres in Dhaka.

The workers at our free meals point were injured or salary-unpaid, but this fact wouldn’t skew the survey, since training took place well before problems arose. It’s an independent variable.

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Profile of respondents

Nearly all the 61 respondents were Bangladeshi. Only 3 out of 61 were Indians. They were split about equally between the construction and the marine sectors, with one worker in the process manufacturing sector. The figures in the tables to follow represent the number of respondents.

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About one in three respondents first came to Singapore in 2011; the rest were spread one or two years before and after.

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There is no striking difference between the years of arrival of construction versus marine workers.

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Duration of skills training course

One of the points made in the earlier report was that there were roughly two categories of training centres in Dhaka. Eight were associated with BCA-authorised testing centres, while many others (perhaps 100) were not. The first eight had testing slots issued by BCA, but the second group had to obtain testing slots from the first group. The result, the report said, was that trainees in the second type of training centres faced a shortage of testing slots and had to wait excessively long for a chance to be tested and certified.

Because our survey was not intended to be a large one, we didn’t think it worthwhile to ask which training centre the men trained at, though on hindsight, we could have asked a simple question if they trained at one of the eight or one of the rest.

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The table above indicates that about 90 percent of workers in the construction sector (28 persons out of 31) had undergone training. Half of them (14 persons) completed their training within 4 months. The usual length of a course is three months. Six workers (21 percent) stayed on at their training centre for five or six months, which indicates some delay.

The guy who stayed 9-10 months at a training centre eventually didn’t get a test at all. The earlier report had noted that some trainees, after waiting a long time for a test slot, just give up. He may be one of them. Another guy who stayed 3-4 months also didn’t take a test; we didn’t ask why.

Even in such a small study, we came across two who had to wait nearly a year, and two more who had to wait over a year before they were tested and certified — an unhappy situation that the earlier report had highlighted.

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The marine sector looked quite different. The majority (18 out of 29) did not attend a training centre prior to coming to Singapore. Of the eleven who did, ten were out of there by six months.

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Are workers being used for their trained skills?

Of the 28 construction workers who attended a training centre, 26 passed their test. Two didn’t take a test, as mentioned above. But since coming to Singapore, only half of them (14 persons) “always” did the kind of job they trained for. Eleven said they “hardly ever, or never” performed the kind of work they were certified in.

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Our small survey thus shows that a large minority of construction workers are not being employed for their trained skills.

The next table is similar, except that the numbers refer to workers in the marine sector:

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The numbers for the marine sector are too small to draw much by way of a conclusion, but the situation (i.e. deployment fitting training) may be a bit better than in construction. Then again, this has to be counterbalanced by the fact that a majority of workers in this sector (18 out of 29) had no pre-arrival training at all.

An interesting, if merely suggestive, observation one can make is that two types of courses produce workers in good demand: welding and electrical wiring and installation.

  • Between the construction and marine sectors, ten men said they took courses in welding. Nine passed their test, one failed. Nine of these ten were “always” employed as welders, including the one who failed. One used to do welding, but has since changed to another line of work.
  • Three respondents said they took a course in electrical wiring and installation. All three were “always” employed in this trade.

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Keeper

TWC2 has noticed that Singapore employers have a tendency to keep employees’ personal documents such as passports, and even work permits, when doing so is illegal. Some workers have also mentioned that employers retain their educational certificates. We asked those who passed their skill tests who was holding on to the certificates.

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About one in three said their employer was holding it.

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“More than 70% of the relatively new construction workers” would be doing their trained work, said BCA

The Building and Construction Authority wrote a letter to TWC2 on 9 October 2013, soon after the details of the study were published. In the letter, they said that according to their 2013 survey, “more than 70% of the relatively new construction workers were deployed in the directly relevant and related trades they were trained in.” No details were provided about this survey they cited, no hyperlink provided. Nor was there any definition of “relatively new construction workers”.

We filtered our results to see if this assertion can be supported.

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Expressed graphically:

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Admittedly, the sample is small, but it is not immediately obvious that the 2012 and 2013 arrivals are distributed differently from the 2009 – 2011 arrivals. On the other hand, neither do our small numbers contradict a “70%” claim, though if we look at a five-year period, it is about 50-60 percent. We can’t get more precise than such a ballpark range. Nonetheless, we may wish to ask: Even if it is 70 percent, is it good enough?

 

 

 

TWC2 is an organization that is dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers when they are in difficulty. We are motivated by a sense of fairness and humanity, though our caseload often exceeds our
means.

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