In Singapore, we rarely see workers who have worked in the Middle East before coming here. Why that is so probably involves complex reasons outside the scope of this article.
Shakil is the unusual one. He spent five years in Dubai before coming to Singapore. We seize the opportunity to ask him to describe his work and the conditions that he experienced over there.
Through the five years, he worked for a very big company called Al Habtoor. “Have 96,000 workers,” Shakil says. “Big construction company.”
Although he describes his basic salary as “520 dirhams” (=S$194) per month, he further elaborates that mostly he was on piece rate. Each task assigned to him would, on completion, earn him X number of “hours”, which was later converted into salary. If he took only a short while to complete the task, it would be to his benefit, earning him more “hours” than he actually put in. Of course, the reverse could also apply.
We don’t have the time to talk in detail about how the hours were then converted to total monthly salary — the UAE has clear rules about overtime pay, where overtime is defined as hours in excess of 48 per week — but Shakil says salary was never an issue. It was always paid on time, in the evening of the last day of the calendar month or the day after, and deposited into his bank account. Most months he would earn far more than the basic salary.
It could be as high as “1,500 dirhams, sometimes have.” That’s the equivalent of S$560.
When we later compare this Dubai salary with what he would later earn in Singapore, he adds,”but many things not so expensive in Dubai. Food very cheap.”
To get the Al Habtoor job, he had paid about S$3,500 in agent fees. It may not sound like much compared to what new Bangladeshi workers have to pay to land a construction job in Singapore, but seen in the context of a basic salary of 520 dirhams, the agent fee he paid was 18 times the basic monthly salary. Luckily, he was able to stay on the job for five years.
Changing the topic somewhat, we ask Shakil to “tell us about the dormitory or the camp.”
He is momentarily perplexed by our terminology, before realising that the question is about housing generally.
“I live in bungalow house,” he answers. Not a dormitory or a camp. That sounds wonderful, but we hold back; a ‘house’ after all can be anything from a mansion to a shack. We urge him to say more about it.
“Have twelve man stay there,” Shakil elaborates.
“How many rooms?”
Alright, it’s a veritable mansion. With airconditioning, kitchen — where they get to cook their own meals — and a washing machine.
In Singapore, even the best purpose-built dormitories are designed for twelve men sharing one room. Of course, Al Habtoor may be an unusually good employer and Shakil’s experience far from typical. All we have in front of us is a sample of one. Hardly representative.
Eventually, after five years, projects dried up. The good times didn’t last; there was less and less work, and Shakil quit to return to Bangladesh.
He remained home in Bangladesh for four years, during which he worked as a salesman for Unilever, earning a salary (no overtime) of 7,000 taka a month (=S$115). He got married too. Unilever’s measly salary would not help him support a wife, so he decided to come to Singapore in 2017.
He paid $7,500 to a job broker in Bangladesh to get a job here with a basic monthly salary of $468. Interestingly, the fee-to-salary multiple is a shade better than the ratio for Dubai. It’s “only” 16 times his basic salary for this new job.
He’s employed as a scaffolder here, once again on piece rate. For every section of scaffolding he erects, he earns a set rate. So, he tries to work as fast as possible or put in as much overtime as he can. “Usually total salary about $1,000 one month, but highest was $1,700.”
Is sturdiness and safety of the scaffolding sacrificed for speed? we wonder. Actually, we don’t have to wonder. Eleven months into his Singapore job, steel struts came crashing down. “China worker above me, he make mistake,” says Shakil.
Shakil himself was struck by the falling pieces, fell, got hurt, and is now temporarily unable to work.