$16,400 – The price of the Singapore dream

Posted by on May 8, 2016 in Articles, Stories

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By Keani Vonge

“Nine lakh fifty thousand,” is what Hassan Raqibul says when we at TWC2 ask him how much he paid for the job in Singapore. That converts to S$16,400.

About half of Hassan’s total fee went to a training centre — construction workers must acquire a skills certificate before they can get a job in Singapore — while the other half went to job placement agent. In many instances the agent is related to the training centre management, if not the very same person.

Hassan, 21, came to Singapore in August 2015 with four other workers to join the same company. The others too paid roughly the same amount of money, Hassan tells us.

This amount is incredibly high compared to what other Bangladeshi workers, whom I interview this evening, paid. Here are the data from a straw poll of six other workers:

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The average is around S$8,000. There is so much profit that the possibility of collusion between the Bangladeshi training centre and the Singaporean employer, with the employer taking a cut, cannot be ruled out.

Hassan Raqibul’s story is that of many low-skilled migrant workers, whose family invested in their journey and training so they could escape poverty in their home country and earn more money in Singapore. What many of these families hope is that in a matter of months the money invested will be recovered and their sons will be able to send some money back home. Sadly, things do not always play out according to this scenario. A severe injury will lead to the cancellation of the work permit and immobilize them for many months before they can return home. All the money invested will then be lost and it would take some time — if ever — before this plan can be repeated.

The only boy in a Bangladeshi family, Hassan, 21, stopped his studies and was sent to Singapore in August 2015 to provide for his family. “My family very poor” he tells me. “ I only boy. I got two sisters.” Hassan’s father, a teacher, earns little. Since studying does not make any money, it was decided that Hassan would quit school and go to Singapore to make a living. “My father worry no good, thinking many many money Singapore, Bangladesh no money”.

Three months after he started here, Hassan found himself out of a job after he hurt his spine at work. He lost his work permit and has been on a Special Pass ever since. This allows him to stay on to receive medical treatment, but does not allow him to find another job in Singapore. He will have to go back to Bangladesh once it expires.

In those three months, with a monthly salary of $850, he earned about $2,250 or less than one seventh of what he had paid.  “My father many many money give for I coming but I money no give” he confided in me, disillusioned. Family assets were monetised and invested in Hassan’s journey to Singapore and Hassan is understandably devastated that all of this money has been exhausted without him being able to send some money back.

This story perfectly illustrates how many migrant workers’ Singaporean dream is being washed away by reality. Indeed, while it is true that Bangladeshi workers do not dream of becoming billionaires in Singapore, they nonetheless expect to come out ahead after a while. The reality is that many of them end up broke, injured and repatriated. Is the stripping away of human dignity what we want out guest worker programme to be known for?

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This story hints at another worrying trend, though it wasn’t the main thrust of Keani’s article. As Singapore tightens up on the number of foreigners working here, is the total agency fee rising? The supply and demand equation would predict that as the supply of jobs reduce, the clearing price would rise. We’ll put an investigator on to this.

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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