Video and text by TWC2 volunteer Gan Chong Jing, based on an interview in September 2020
It’s easy for the general public to assume that the lives of foreign workers and the nature of their work are largely homogeneous. When we think of a construction worker, we instinctively conjure up the image of men in hard hats and safety vests — what could be so different about any one of their jobs?
But the truth is that even within the construction industry, different workers receive different pay, face different working hours, job conditions, etcetera. As a result, some workers are placed into situations that are even more unfair and unjust than others. One such group of workers are supply workers, such as Akash, a Bangladeshi national whom TWC2 interviewed about his experiences in his job.
Supply workers differ from the typical construction worker in that they are not directly employed by the contractors who are executing the building project. Rather, they are employed by manpower supply companies, whose business is to supply these contractors with additional manpower when they are faced with shortages, Instead of being attached to a single job site, or having a fixed job scope, these supply workers are shuttled around multiple different job sites, filling up whatever roles need extra manpower.
Workers have told TWC2 that they can be assigned a few days at one site followed by a few days at another. Sometimes when the manpower supply company has no interested contractors to supply to, the men are left in their dorms and may not be paid for those idled days.
As we found out from Akash, these roles often end up being the hardest ones, as contractors often let their own workers take the easier jobs, leaving the most undesirable and dangerous ones left for the supply workers. In the past, TWC2 has written about how the constantly changing jobs that supply workers have to take endangers their safety by creating a higher risk of accidents.
Worse still, Akash revealed that due to the way that supply companies operate, supply workers regularly get severely inadequate amounts of rest and sleep. Akash’s company employs roughly 200 workers, who must all be sent to work each morning by the company’s lorries. The problem is that since supply companies often second workers in small numbers to many job sites, these 200 men are scattered across multiple locations around the island. One lorry, Akash told us, would take between 40 and 50 men, and spend almost three hours ferrying them to each individual building site. For every man to make it to work on time, the lorry would have to leave the dormitory at the insane hour of 5am, which means that the workers all have to be awake by 4.30am. For men who are dropped off way before the work starts, they were left with no choice but to sit at the roadside and wait for hours on end — hours that they may not be paid for.
The same pattern would then repeat at night: the workers might work overtime until 10pm. By the time the lorry had picked them all up and sent them back to the dormitories, it would be past midnight. After showering and taking their dinner at this absurd hour, the workers would have a mere couple of hours to sleep before they would have to wake up and face another exhausting day. On top of having to suffer exhaustion and sleep deprivation, the compromised resting hours and resulting chronic fatigue create another huge safety hazard at the job site.
All this would at least be less unfair if the workers were justly remunerated for the highly strenuous nature of their jobs. But the sad truth is that supply workers like Akash are still paid poorly. He was paid a basic salary of $16 a day, with a meagre $4 allowance, for a total of $20 per day. Akash is paid a mere $2 an hour for his labour, lower than what a worker of equivalent skill employed by contractors would be usually paid. To add insult to injury, when Akash was working at one job site recently, his supervisor came and scolded him when he was moving sluggishly due to exhaustion. His supervisor belted out, “You know how much I pay for you for one day? A hundred-plus dollars!”
Akash didn’t get any salary increase for six years.
While Akash cannot confirm that this statistic is true, if the supervisor’s figure is to be believed, then supply companies are pocketing a shockingly large proportion of the revenue generated by their workers, only to shortchange them with inadequate pay.
The hardest jobs, the least rest, and the lowest pay — that is the life that supply workers face in Singapore, one that is so notoriously difficult that all workers know to try and avoid that fate at all costs.
While Akash was initially hesitant to speak of his experiences, the more he spoke, the more impassioned he became, laughing bitterly when we asked if he found his job difficult, or asked about his sleeping hours. He’s been working in Singapore for six years, yet his wage has never substantially increased. All he can do is to soldier on. For his sake, we hope that awareness can be spread of the unique set of disadvantages that supply workers like him face, so that the men who build our city for us can be justly rewarded for their work.