Starting basic salaries for first-time workers from India and Bangladesh have remained more or less static since 2006, averaging slightly under Singapore dollars 600 per month. However, when adjusted for inflation, a downward trend is seen, and thus, in terms of Singapore purchasing power, average basic salaries have declined about 20% since 2006.

The above was the most depressing finding from a relatively large survey of Work Permit holders conducted by Transient Workers Count Too on two Sundays in November 2015 and May 2016. A total of 910 valid responses were collected. Foreign workers who were not in work (e.g. on Special Passes) were excluded, as were Malaysians and domestic workers. This was to ensure that the results represented the situation among those we popularly consider “foreign workers” in non-domestic sectors, and who were currently holding a job.

A majority of respondents were in construction.

The survey questions were mostly centred on when they came to Singapore for (a) their first jobs, and (b) their current jobs, and their basic salaries at these points in time. We were thus able to obtain a retrospective longitudinal  view of salary trends and duration in jobs.

We found that slightly more than half first came here in 2011 or later. Comparing this proportion with the total numbers of foreign workers in the years prior to 2011 (numbers which were quite considerable), we estimate that three in four of those who had joined our workforce in the 2006-2010 period are no longer working here. Singapore has lost their skills and experience.

In their place, Singapore is weighted with relatively newer workers.

This “worker churn” is further evidenced by the fact that for 61% of respondents, their current jobs were their first jobs in Singapore; only a minority (39%) had held other jobs before in this country. That said, the average duration in a job is about four years, which mitigates somewhat the ill-effects of churn.

What does this mean? It suggests that in general employers are not too quick in sending workers back home, nor are workers quick to quit and return home. With an average of four years on a job, there is a fair degree of acquisition of experience — which in theory should benefit both sides, though from employees’ perspective, salary increases with experience were found to be slight. However, once home, many workers appear not to have come back for subsequent jobs. Is this because they do not wish to, or because they can’t find subsequent jobs here?

If they do not wish to, why? Did they find working in Singapore less rewarding than first assumed?

If it’s the latter reason, what are the factors that make it difficult for them to come here for another job? The survey did not touch on this question, but instead has thrown this question up as one that is worthy of further enquiry.

work_history_survey_downloadWorkers who do come back for a subsequent job tend to have higher starting salaries than first-time workers. Exactly what that salary premium is seems to fluctuate considerably from year to year. Some cohorts report only a $20 – $50 difference in monthly basic salaries between returning and new workers, other annual cohorts report differences around $100 or more. It is not possible to elucidate from the survey why there is this fluctuation. One possibility may be that the demand/supply equation varies from one year to the next, depending perhaps on the economic climate.

The full report “Work History Survey” (PDF, 61 pages) can be downloaded by clicking the image at right.