By Kimberley Ng
In recent years, Singapore’s slowing economy has meant fewer construction and marine sector jobs for migrant workers. What few might realise is that recruitment costs have risen prohibitively through the same period. The two are not unrelated: it is a matter of demand for work outstripping supply of jobs. Unfortunately neither the Bangladesh nor Singapore government has paid attention to this problem and the human misery it leads to.
To illustrate the problem, we spoke with a number of workers at TWC2’s Cuff Road Project.
We approached five construction workers who travelled to Singapore from Bangladesh within the last 24 months, and who therefore were here on Work Permits until very recently when they met with accidents — which is why they are now eating with the Cuff Road Project. Construction workers wishing to seek employment in Singapore are required (by a Singapore government rule) to undergo a training course back in Bangladesh and take an examination. Subsequently, the training centre may provide them with job-matching services or, less often, ask them to engage these services elsewhere. Of the five we surveyed, all paid $10,000 or more to obtain certification and find a job here. One worker, Mosharaf, told us that he paid a total of $16,000 – half to the training centre, and the other half to an agent. Compared to that, Ray, Islam and Aziz could almost be said to have gotten off lightly, having paid $15,000, $12,000 and $11,400 respectively.
These figures may represent a doubling of the rate from some five years ago. Abu Younis, who first came to Singapore five years ago, paid $7,368 for the same certification and job-matching — which at that time, we would have considered exorbitant. Meanwhile, Rofiqul, who has been here for seven years, forked out $7,394 when he first came – a comparable amount.
To better plot the trend, a slightly larger sample study is being undertaken and results will be out in a month or two.
At current levels, recruitment costs leave many transient workers saddled in debt for the duration of their stint here. Mosharaf, who commands a basic salary of only $468 a month, would need to plough 33 months’, or three years’, worth of salary into paying off his debt before his trip to Singapore becomes financially worthwhile. Meanwhile, Ray commands a basic salary of $600 per month, taking him 25 months, or just over 2 years. This of course presumes they do not spend any money for their daily necessities nor remit any income back to their families, which is not realistic. No doubt they may earn extra for overtime work, but the availability of overtime work is not assured and even if they worked to the legal maximum of overtime hours (72 hours a month), it would add only about 50 – 60% more to the basic salary. Looking at the figures, one wonders how this model can sustain itself.
It is easy to take for granted Singapore’s seemingly endless infrastructural redevelopment and improvement, pithily epitomized in the joke that our national bird is the construction crane. But our rapid progress comes on the backs of migrant workers’ hard labour – workers who are faced with impossible financial struggles that they must nevertheless face down. In light of these hardships, the cause for rising costs of obtaining certification and landing a job deserve further governmental attention.
It is not as if no solution can be found. As described in an earlier article on this website, Korea’s system for importing migrant labour, South Korea operates a vastly different system in conjunction with the Bangladeshi government. Workers are recruited through government-to-government channels, cutting out middlemen, and costs are capped by regulations. Why not here?