By Joanna Korycinska

$6,500 is the amount Hossain Jakir (above, right) paid upfront to secure a job in Singapore. It took him two and a half years to recover this ‘investment’ before he started earning anything he could send home. With the median wage in Singapore this year at $3,770, it is very difficult for almost anyone to have a real sense of the practical sacrifice it is to go two and a half years without any real income. An average Singaporean family, going by the median income, would be able to repay this amount in 2-3 months if they minimised other expenses.

Hossain wakes up at 5.30am. every Monday to Saturday and takes a lorry from his dormitory to the shipyard with about 26 other workers. He started with a pay of $16 a day. After working for one year, his pay rose to $17 a day. His basic hours are 8am to 5pm, but he usually works to 8pm — a gruelling twelve hours of physical labour. The additional hours count as overtime for which he is paid $2.50 per hour*.

*If what Hossain tells us is correct, then the employer is underpaying him. Under the Employment Act, overtime work should be paid at 1.5 times basic rate. He should be paid $3.19 a hour instead of $2.50.

I ask him if he works on Sundays. Yes two times a month, he says. He is paid $34 a day on Sundays.

Was this the life Hossain signed up for? Did he know what it would be like? I ask him. His answer: He had thought he would be working on a ship, that he would be able to travel and see something of the world. When he arrived in Singapore he found out that he was to work at a shipyard. There was nothing for it but to work and get on with life.

I ask him if there is anything he likes about his job. I get a wry smile and shake of the head, as if I am worlds away from the reality he lives in where work is hard and unpleasant but something that must be endured. “Just work only,” is all he manages to say.

Eslavath Laxminaik (pictured at top, left) has been in Singapore for almost six years. He hails from Andhra Pradesh, India. His day begins much like Hossain’s. He wakes up at 5am to start work at 7am. His basic hours are till 4:30pm, but he continues for three hours more of overtime.

When Laxminaik first joined the company in 2010, his salary was $16 a day — like Hossain’s starting salary. But through the years, particularly after his employer sent him for a course to learn how to fit pipes, it has since increased to $23 a day. He now does pipe fitting in addition to cutting pipes and grinding.

Once more I ask whether there was anything he liked about his job. He smiles and says that it is just “hard work”. There isn’t anything more to it. I sense a slightly bitter resignation, hidden beneath the incredulity of being asked whether he liked anything about work at all, as if the very concept of enjoying work were alien to him.

The pay is low, pushing both workers to spend as much time as they can working, to earn even that little bit more. Throughout his years in the job, Laxminaik has not taken leave, he says. Like many foreign workers, he has chosen to devote his prime years to working and earning as much as he can.

Does he have an end he is working for? No, not really, he tells me, no plans except going back to India.

Talking to these two workers makes me certain that living life day to day, without the real possibility of realising bigger hopes and dreams is not a good thing at all. I am sure these human desires are present, but when the daily reality is one of hard physical labour, perhaps they think it is slightly foolish to articulate them even when asked.