A visit to the Asea Trading International Singapore Skills Centre in Tangail District of Bangladesh began with a conversation with the managing director Mr. Md Anisur Rahman. He proudly boasted that his centre hosts about 100 men at a time offering training in such skills as welding, electrical wiring, waterproofing, pipefitting and installing acoustical ceilings. These are skill areas for which the Building and Construction of Authority of Singapore (BCA) conducts skills tests (in Bangladesh and other countries).

The charges, according to the director are 400,000 taka (about S$6,500) for the training that leads up to the certificate and another S$4,000 for the visa, flight and the job — the latter being effectively a job agent’s fee.

That’s over $10,000, which is typical of what we hear men are paying these days for their first job in Singapore. Given that the Singapore government has now said that from 2017 at least 10% of the work permit holders in construction firms will have to hold a higher-skilled certificate, the training centers are sure to be even more in demand.

We arrived at a time that the men were undergoing an exercise for the practical skills component of the final exam. The exam itself will be held at one of the eight approved examination centres in Bangladesh. The men from this training centre will be sent to the test centre at Singapore-owned Santarli Construction Pte Ltd  (also in Bangladesh) for their final exam.

The equipment and the facilities at Asea Trading appeared adequate and complete. These men in each section were given only three hours to perform a task that they will have four hours to complete in the actual test. Because of the short time allowed, they were moving at a maddening pace, rushing between consulting the instructions, the designs and the job, at some points moving almost in unison. The job would be checked for correspondence to the plan, attention to detail, strength and durability.

We were also allowed to inspect the dormitories, the kitchen and the bathing/toilet facilities. The areas were basic, yet in many ways superior to the dormitories and facilities that the men are offered in Singapore. The young men, some claiming to be 18 (but looking even younger) were eagerly anticipating the opportunity to start work and repay their families and friends for their investment in the Singapore job.

We were escorted by M, a previous trainee at this centre, and unescorted by anyone from the office. Oddly, since foreign visitors would be uncommon at this centre, we were not asked to identify ourselves or state our reason for viewing the facility.

M told us that due to the limited number of places at the exam — a limit imposed on the centres by the BCA — the training centres always have a surplus of trainees, and securing a place to merely sit the final exam is determined by their ability to pay an additional amount. Some might wait over one year, and even as long as three years before they have enough money to pay to sit the exam. During this time they may be expected to remain at the training centre in order to ensure their ‘place in the queue’ and would be charged for food and lodging for the duration. Those men who don’t pass the first time will be charged for the second try, as is the case at the BCA in Singapore.

The full amount for training of 400,000 taka is not collected before the start of the course. This centre may collect 20,000-30,000 taka ($350-$500) at the start of training, demanding the rest after a few weeks. This is because some of the young men drop out early, unable to endure the rigorous training, cope with complex computing, manage the meticulous measurements, or brave the homesickness. The initial investment is non-refundable.

M also explained that although the training at the centres is tough, the work in Singapore is relatively easy. The men may not be expected to put to use the skills they’ve learned and may work as general labourers instead. Many men in Singapore say they don’t use their skills on the job, but still require the skills certificate to obtain employment because unskilled workers incur a higher foreign worker levy for the employer. So, employers hire skilled workers even when they don’t need those skills.

The managing director’s house next to the training centre had undergone renovations and improvements since M had received his training there. M mentioned that the managing director had clearly done well for himself and been able to purchase other properties after the heavy investment in land, equipment and trainers for the centre.

bca_skills_courses_costsThe amounts paid to the centre for training, passport applications and the job are far in excess of the costs. TWC2’s 2012 report entitled Worse Off For Working shows that about one in three men must work between one and two years before recovering the costs involved to obtain the job, and another one in three must work more than two years before recovering the costs. Clearly a more just and transparent system must be found to enable foreign workers to join Singapore’s work force. If the training centres in Bangladesh charged no more than the BCA charges in Singapore, from $1,340 for painting to $2,425 for electrical wiring, that would be an important start. Click thumbnail at right for BCA’s price list.

If the Ministry of Manpower would hire the skilled workers directly and allocate workers rather than allow the training centres act as agents for the construction companies (see the article How the Migrant Worker System is Regulated Counts for a Lot) that would further reduce the cost to workers, reduce their initial debt considerably, and allow them to start earning money well within the first year of work.

Below are some photographs we took while visiting this training centre: