By Gek Han

“Please Singapore government, please change the system, and I will come here again to work.” When Hossain returns to Bangladesh, he will try to find work in South Korea, rather than Singapore.

Before coming to Singapore in 2013, Hossain tried to find employment in South Korea, because the South Korean system of recruiting Bangladeshis is more transparent and direct, done via a government website without the use of agents. Bangladeshis who want to work in South Korea register for free on a South Korean government website, after which they study the South Korean language. A three-month South Korean language course costs around 5000 to 15,000 Bangladeshi Taka (about S$90-S$270). The registrants then take the language exam for free. The website is so transparent that Hossain could tell me the quota was 5,000 workers, and the top 5,000 candidates with the best language test results are chosen. After that, the successful candidates pay a registration fee of 2,100 Taka (about S$38) and attend a gratis three-day course on Korean culture. On average, a Bangladeshi going to South Korea to work would pay a total of around 65,000 Taka (about S$1,170) for the airfare, language course and registration fee.

The contrast with the situation in Singapore is stark. In 2013, Hossain paid S$10,000 to an agent in Bangladesh. According to Hossain, the agent fee has risen to S$14,000 in 2016. Hossain explained that the high fee is due to the numerous middlemen between the agent and the worker, i.e., the agent will outsource the job of finding workers to his relatives, who in turn ask around their relatives, and every middleman between the agent and the worker gets a cut of the commission. Even after paying such a hefty fee, Bangladeshis have no guarantee of finding a good company. In Singapore, there is no minimum wage, and workers could be paid merely S$500 a month.

Hossain estimated the minimum salary in South Korea as S$1,200. (A quick webcheck reveals that in 2017, the minimum wage in South Korea has been set at 6,470 won per hour, which is equivalent to S$1,497 per month. The minimum wage applies to foreign workers too.) The contract is for a five-year period, and Hossain’s friends who are working in South Korea have been there for six to seven years. In Singapore, employers can terminate the contract any time, and Hossian’s contract was terminated after 2 years and 8 months, when he sustained a work injury. (In Korea, should an employer terminate a foreign worker’s employment for reason such as downsizing or going out of business, the worker has a right to be transferred to another job instead of being repatriated,)

The choice — between a balanced, compassionate system and a harsh system that allows workers to be exploited by middlemen and employers — cannot be more obvious. I wished Hossain all the best in finding employment in South Korea.