By TWC2 volunteer Ming Zee Tee based on an interview in July 2020

“My friend asked me for $6,500 to pay the agent. I never talked to the agent.”

Nahid’s two tales – the first, a story of relative success; the second, a troubling account of illegal recruitment and false promises – show us just how precarious the nature of migrant worker employment is.

The shipyard job

By the (admittedly low) standards in the migrant worker community, Nahiduzzaman, 30 — known to his friends as Nahid — was lucky in his first job in Singapore. Originally from Bangladesh, he came here in 2013 as a shipyard worker, fitting and welding marine structures in Keppel Shipyard such as barges, oil rigs and offshore quarters for oilmen. As the son of a farmer and the eldest of five siblings, Nahid had hoped to earn enough to support his three brothers and one sister through school — while accumulating enough savings to start a family of his own.

Before coming to Singapore, migrant workers typically secure their appointment by paying a recruitment fee to an agent. They then bear further costs undergoing the requisite training for the sector they are employed in. Cumulatively, these costs can run into the thousands; construction workers have been known to pay as much as $20,000 in total.

Nahid had an easier start. He paid only 130,000 Bangladeshi Taka (roughly $2,000) for his recruitment fee and trained as a shipfitter for 26,000 Taka (roughly $430). Even though he wasn’t in the construction sector and thus avoided the worst of the costs, what he had to pay was still lower than other workers in the shipyard sector.

Moreover, his starting basic pay was $18 per day, higher than the more typical $16 per day reported by other shipyard workers.

Nahid may not even have realised how lucky he was. Perhaps it had to do with his employer being Alpine Engineering Services Pte Ltd, a 100%-owned subsidiary of the Keppel Group. Big companies tend to be more ethical employers.

Work was reasonable, if exhausting. In the five years Nahid worked at Alpine Engineering, his daily wage increased by an increment of $1 each year; the year he left the job, he was earning $22 per day. He also pulled night shifts for an additional $10 to his paycheck, working into the wee hours each day. By 2018, he was earning $600 per month after employer deductions  — we didn’t want to get into too much detail, so we didn’t ask him to itemise them.

With a stable job, Nahid managed to recover what he had sunk in as his recruitment cost. He amassed some savings too, and started planning his next career move.

Shipfitters are one of the lowest-paid roles in the industry; a construction worker can earn almost twice as much. Nahid seized the opportunity, and took a course in construction for $800, attaining the BCA Skills Evaluation Certificate necessary for all foreign workers in the construction sector. The course organised lessons on weekends, and Nahid could both work and train at the same time. He paid for the course himself.

He then left Alpine. He needed to go home to see his family – the first time in 5 years – before attempting to find another, higher paying job in construction.

The construction job

Trying to find a new job when back home in Bangladesh wasn’t easy. The physical distance between him and potential employers, or even agents, was a big complication. Unlike the situation some years ago, the “agents” (illegal recruiters) now mostly operate out of Singapore, not so much in the home countries.

In fact, Nahid didn’t know any agent at all. He only knew of “friends” in Singapore (more likely acquaintances) who might know agents.

One such friend found an agent for him. Yet, at no time did Nahid communicate directly with this agent. Nahid communicated only with the friend, who told him that the fee would be $6,500 (roughly 400,000 Taka). How that amount would be split among friend, agent and employer, Nahid didn’t know. But certainly one or more of them got richer as a result.

When I ask Nahid why he didn’t try to talk directly to the agent, he is one-part sheepish, one-part defensive. “My friend asked me for 400,000 Taka. I bank transferred it to him – and never talked to the agent. I don’t know how much agent fees were.”

Neither does Nahid have an official record of how much was paid to the agent, beyond an unreceipted, one-off bank transfer from Nahid to his “friend”.

Then there was the matter of salary. The employer, Megabuilders, had inked Nahid’s salary at the equivalent of $19 per day in his In-Principle Approval (IPA) document (see Glossary), but verbally promised that this might increase to $28 per day after Nahid completed the company’s “internal welding examinations”. These exams didn’t eventuate — and neither did Nahid’s promised pay increase.

Instead of earning, more, Nahid was now earning less than his last-drawn salary at Alpine.

Moreover, Megabuilders started deducting $100 from Nahid’s salary each month as “savings money”: money ostensibly kept by the company for safekeeping as savings, to be returned to employees at the end of their employment. Nahid worked for them for 15 months, before sustaining a workplace injury in June 2019.

He filed an injury claim and the employer cancelled his Work Permit. Since cancellation marked the end of employment, Nahid asked the company to return the accumulated “savings money” . He made repeated attempts to reach the management but “nobody picks up”, and not a cent of Nahid’s rightful savings of $1,500 has been returned.

When I speak to Nahid, he is shy but genial. We joke about our families, and his untypical determination not to get married while still a migrant worker “because everyday calling the wife is so much problem!”. He speaks fondly of his sister, who studies in the University of Dhaka — the oldest university in Bangladesh — and his youngest brother, who is only in Class 8 (14 years old).

I hope he gets to see them soon.