By Tristan Powell-Odden, based on an interview in January 2018

Hossain Sabuj, like many other migrant workers, had a dream: To open a clothing store that re-sold American brands in Bangladesh, his home country. To raise the needed capital, he would work for a few years overseas.

However, because of the exorbitant amounts of money he has paid to agents over the years for the privilege of working in Singapore, he, himself, no longer believes that this dream will ever come true.  And, although these agents remain a factor in recruiting countries, what is more of a travesty for people like Hossain, is that they also reside here — in Singapore.

He began his long three-year endeavor as a migrant worker in Bangladesh, with a meeting with a local dalal (job agent) to inquire about his first job. Wanting to work overseas, Hossain asked this man how much it would cost to guarantee him a spot in the Singaporean migrant workforce.  The answer:  Five thousand dollars.  Five thousand dollars to work in a country that he wasn’t even in yet.

However, that amount was not all he had to pay. To take up a construction job in Singapore, he had to undergo training (in Bangladesh) and obtain a Basic Skills Certificate. This involved classes in a field that he rather enjoyed and believed would reap him success and benefits: installation of acoustic ceilings. The three-month course cost him an additional three thousand dollars — all borrowed from a bank and all would need to be repaid.  But he was optimistic. He put his faith in his newfound expertise and made the trip to Singapore. Here he was promptly put to work as a hard laborer, bending reinforcement steel bars before the pouring of concrete. There were no ceilings to install.

To be fair, he was paid adequately well; there were no salary issues the first year.  However, after a falling injury he sustained near the end of the year for which he had to pay his own doctor visits, he returned to Bangladesh with a promise from his employer that when he was “fit for work I will give you IPA to come back.”  Bosses and workers commonly use the initials ‘IPA’ to refer to In-principle Approvals for Work Permits, documents issued by the Ministry of Manpower allowing workers to enter Singapore.

But when Hossain contacted his previous boss about his return, he was told, “I cannot.”

This led to venture number two.   After another three thousand-dollar payment to yet another dalal, he returned to work in Singapore.  But after ten months, the company’s project was finished, and there was no more work for him,. Again, he was sent back to Bangladesh.However, he still owed thousands of dollars to the bank from which he had borrowed money for his first job. Nor had he repaid money to his family who helped finance his second attempt. “So many loan. Lost many money.”

Needing a way to make this money back and still focused on his dream, he once more put his faith in Singapore.

For a third time, he approached a dalal. This one offered him an opportunity — for eight thousand more dollars in fees. Hossain again borrowed more money from his aunt and sister’s husband to return to Singapore.

He was put back to work with reinforcement bars, but this time was getting paid a slightly better salary than before. At $468 a month, it is equivalent to about $18 for each back-breaking day. With lots of overtime, it seemed as if everything would be alright in the end. It would take Hossain a while to pay back his loans, but it was possible if the job would just last.

It didn’t.

Ten months later, the company closed. His boss failed to pay the required levy to the Singapore government and fled to China.  As Hossain says, “Singapore very good country and law very good, but some country boss no good.”  Yet, is it as simple as that?

This time, Hossain wasn’t sent home immediately. Since he lodged a formal complaint with MOM, he now has to wait out the investigation. In the meantime, he is free to look for a new job, under MOM’s current policy.

Dalals circulate in Singapore just as they do in Bangladesh. Hossain met with one during his search for a new job. A Bangladeshi man, almost surely himself a Work Permit holder here, he insisted on a fee of $3,500 for a placement. As someone with thousands of dollars of debt already, what kind of opportunity was that?  And where is the justice within Singapore, a city that prides itself on law and order?

Under our Employment Agencies Act, it is an offence for anyone who is not a licenced job agent to act as one. Surely no Work Permit holder, operating informally, without a proper office, would be such a licenced party.

Moreover, the law sets a cap on how much licenced employment agents can charge: the equivalent of one month’s basic salary for each year of contract, up to a maximum of two month’s basic salary.

To justify the $3,500 asked for, if at all the Singapore-based dalal had a proper licence, the job being offered to Hossein would have to command a basic salary of $3,500 per month, or $1,750 per month with the minimum contract period of two years. This is beyond belief. Nothing about it can be legitimate.

The authorities cannot police other countries, but surely they can police their own?

Yet Hossain, after rejecting the dalal’s offer, is afraid to blow the whistle on him out of fear that it will accomplish nothing.  And a fear that it might jeopardize his return home.

As we finish our conversation, Hossain holds his head in his hands and says he is “fed up.”  Lonely, in debt, and with his dream dashed, now he just wants to go home.  But for what, or to what, he doesn’t know.