Video by Nicole Ng, text by Colin Ng, with contributions by Alex Au

For most construction workers like Islam Mahabub, a job here comes at a hefty price. Based on casual reports collected by TWC2 from among the thousands of workers we see each year, the cost of a job can range from $2,000 to as high as $17,000. Mahabub’s story in the video above is therefore quite typical.

The sum is determined by a number of factors — the salary offered, the training required prior to getting a job, the length of the contract, the nature of the work… the list goes on. Regardless, there is one party that profits most from whatever that sum is: the recruitment agent. Thus the men’s all-purpose term for these costs: “agent fees” or “agent money”.

Migrant workers are introduced to a the notion of working in Singapore through myriad avenues. There are glowing stories from job agents and training centres. There are the visible examples of friends or relatives returning from a lucrative stint in Singapore and who are now building large new houses for their families, vastly raising their status. These relations can be interlinked. The training centre acts as a job agency, the friend or relative working in Singapore can become an introducer and a sort of independent, unofficial agent.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that the fees paid are often split and shared with different parties in the home country and in Singapore, including (though it is against Singapore law) the employer. But the worker himself may not be clear how his payments have been shared. Most workers pay a lump sum either to someone they call the “agent” or to the training centre. Some are not told where the money goes; others are able to provide TWC2 with a simple breakdown of the different fees paid.

A construction worker’s first job tends to come at an exorbitant price. This is because of a condition set by the Singapore government that they must possess a basic skills certificate before they can come here to work in the construction sector. Skills Training Centres, all privately owned, have mushroomed in Bangladesh to exploit this bounteous rule set out by the Singapore government. They provide the most rudimentary of training, in rather wretched sheds, with each course generally lasting three months. They charge huge sums, but that’s just for the training component. To actually get a job, another fee has to be paid on top of that.

In the video, Islam Mahabub explains how much he paid for his first job.

He also reveals what his basic salary for that job was. Lasting only 12 months, the total basic salary did not even come close to what he paid for the job. Very likely, he would also have earned some extra pay from overtime work; on the other hand, a significant portion of what he took home each month would have had to go towards food, accommodation and other necessities. Whichever way one calculates it, he would not have recovered his sunk cost for that job within the 12 months of employment.

For subsequent jobs, construction workers usually pay less than for their first jobs. Primarily, this is because they are unlikely to have to go through skills training again. Even then, it is still a hefty sum of money. In Mahabub’s case, he paid $5,400.

Mahabub’s story reveals the huge risks migrant workers take. He suffered a workplace injury three months into his second job and is unable to work. How he will ever recover his sunk cost for this second job (or for the first job too), is unknown. He has a family to feed. The prospects are bleak.

As much as there are men who do well out of working abroad, there are also those who plunge themselves and their families deeper into misery. The recruitment of migrant workers for Singapore is effectively unregulated, with richer, better-connected businessmen exploiting those in need of employment. There does not appear to be any political will to tighten regulations in order to rein in sharks and charlatans. Meanwhile, no social safety net exists for migrant workers, and injury or illness can spell catastrophe. Singapore, to our shame, does not seem to care that we’re treating human lives as disposable commodities. We appear quite content with a system that sucks them dry and then spits injured and broken men back.