By Aaron Chua, based on an interview in November 2017

“Hello,” says Bhimol* to TWC2 volunteer Alex Au, just as Alex is arriving at The Cuff Road Project’s meal station. “I come back,” adds Bhimol.

“Huh? Come back from where?” asks Alex.

“[Last] Friday, I come back. New job.”

“Ah,” says Alex, but before he can finish his sentence, Bhimol’s friend comes by, spotting him by chance.

They greet each other playfully, and then the friend asks, “But why? Why you come back?” with the subtext that things aren’t that good for foreign workers in Singapore.

Alex turns to me suggesting that I find out more about how Bhimol managed to get his new job, and how much he paid for it. “Profile another example of a worker’s life,” Alex says.

This is Bhimol’s second job in Singapore. The first one — as a marine trades worker — lasted for about four years. This new job is also in the marine sector.

Like many of his counterparts, the first step Bhimol had to take was to find a local recruiter in Bangladesh to process his paperwork. The recruiter he approached for his first job was a stranger, while for his second job, he went through a relative whom he refers to as a “cousin-brother”. Because of the weak enforcement of recruitment laws in Bangladesh, these unlicenced “village man” recruiters are common, and become known through word of mouth.

However, the unregulated application process leads to large disparities in the time the workers must wait to get an In-Principle Approval for Work Permit — a letter issued by Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower confirming that there’s a job waiting for them — and the amount of money they must fork out to recruiters. For example, to get his first job, Bhimol waited two months and paid four lakhs, the equivalent of about six thousand five hundred Singapore dollars. Contrastingly, his second application took three weeks to process and cost two lakhs.

As can be seen, these recruitment fees are usually exorbitant compared to the offered monthly salaries — in Bhimol’s case $477 per month for the second job — compelling the migrant workers to borrow heavily.  They remain in debt for a long time, and as a result, they are fearful of displeasing their boss and losing the job. Consequently, they are vulnerable to exploitation by employers.

To pay for his recruitment fees, Bhimol borrowed from his father who runs a potato business. The first loan took him two years of working in Singapore to repay. Naturally, it is too early to say when the second loan will be recouped.

I speak to another worker who tells me he doesn’t have affluent relatives. In his case, he borrowed from a bank instead. See another article by TWC2 on this subject here: Bangladeshi bank charges 10% interest per month.

Bhimol confirms my suspicion: there are no receipts issued by recruiters when they take money.

He is also aware that the money job applicants have to pay is siphoned off by various parties along the way. But he sees little use in reporting the problem and views it as part of the Bangladeshi “culture”.

Moving the conversation along, I ask him how long he remained back home in Bangladesh after his first job. One year, he says. He went home in November 2016, and now (November 2017) he’s back. It turns out that he was injured in his thumb at the first job. While he received compensation, he had to consult a doctor again after returning, and perhaps for that reason, he wasn’t in a great hurry to get another job here.

For Bhimol and his compatriots, Singapore is still the place for better financial opportunities. It is “hard [to] find job” in Bangladesh, he says. And there are other aspects of his experience in Singapore that he likes too, such as the friends he has made, including the guy who cheerfully spotted him just a little earlier.

But it’s bittersweet that they are not outraged by having to pay so much for a chance to work here. Can there be change for the better if we’re too accepting of a sad reality?

*The name has been changed so as not to jeopardise his new job