After hearing anecdotal reports of ‘agent fees’ in the region of $17,000 or $18,000, Transient Workers Count Two carried out a pilot survey to determine if these were rare cases, or if recruitment costs have risen dramatically.
An earlier research report published in 2012, Worse off for working? found that Bangladeshi workers needed to work 17.5 months on average to recover their sunk recruitment costs. But that report, based on fieldwork in 2011, had found that they paid $7,256 on average for their jobs. If today, costs have risen to as high as recent anecdotal reports, their situation would be dire. This is especially as salaries are not much different in 2016 compared with 2011.
Workers who have not recovered their recruitment costs find themselves trapped in their jobs. They feel unable to complain, whether about unpaid salaries, unsafe work or abysmal housing conditions, for fear of losing their jobs. Should they lose their jobs by antagonising their employers, they would have to go home — they have no right to find another job in Singapore — and would have to pay agents all over again to get new jobs.
The higher recruitment costs go, the longer men are entrapped by the system and their sunk costs.
This pilot survey conducted in June and July 2016 found that in 2015, average recruitment costs for first-time jobs hit $15,555. The sample size was relatively small (54 Bangladeshi construction workers) because we needed a quick turn-around for the survey, and in any case, it was meant to test-drive the questions for a larger survey to follow.
Recruitment costs for subsequent jobs — which are usually about half the cost for first-time jobs — also rose, but not as dramatically. The average hit $4,299 in 2015 when in previous years, the average would be around $3,000 to $4,000.
This pilot survey discovered that first-time workers could not give a detailed breakdown of the various fees that make up their total recruitment cost.
For their subsequent jobs, the men were able to provide a bit more information about the components. About half of them paid a portion or all their costs to someone in Singapore, sometimes an intermediary, sometimes the employer himself. Such payments are generally illegal, and this finding is troubling in showing how widespread such illegal transactions are.
The report (in PDF, 17 pages) can be downloaded by clicking the link at right.