By Sun Hanchen, based on an interview in November 2017

When most of us apply for a job, we have expectations that the job scope will be related to our field of education or training, and that we will have some knowledge of the people whom we will be working with. It goes beyond expectations actually – those attributes are necessary for one to carry out responsibilities effectively. In an ideal world, those expectations should be even more crucial in jobs involving heavy machinery and which pose some risk of injury, such as construction and landscaping work. Sadly, there is a subset of workers in Singapore that receive far less than adequate training relative to their actual job scopes, and face much more severe challenges in communication with co-workers, due to the nature of their work.

Meet Chakraborty Nandan Chandra (known as Nandan by his friends). He narrates his story to me in great detail with perfectly clear English, occasionally splattered with some Singlish terms. It is unsurprising to see that he has picked up some of our local dialect, for he has been working here for five years. A former university student, he dropped out to provide for his family, especially his elderly parents who are ill.

Nandan is a ‘supply worker’.  That’s a breed unlike many other foreign workers in Singapore, most of whom come to work for durations measured in terms of years, working for the same employer and largely on the same project all the way through. Even if their employer has several projects and they are deployed from one to another, their job scope remains similar.

Supply workers, on the other hand, are employed by a company which supplies workers to other firms in order to fill manpower shortages, often for very short durations. While there is nothing wrong inherently with such a concept – it is always good to supplement a shortfall in workers to ensure that work gets completed safely and on time – but the way things work out in practice is far from ideal.

Nandan initially received training in thermal insulation at a skills centre in Bangladesh. His work in Singapore, however, is anything but. As a supply worker, he has done all sorts of things, from cement mixing to working on ceiling partitions. “One to two months temporary job… doing many kind of job… everything job…” Nandan tells TWC2 about his time with the company.

While he conceded it may not be a necessity to take on all the jobs, having to provide for his family leaves him with no choice. For whatever task he is given, the only training he receives is from his new colleagues whom he hardly knows. “First time we go then follow… follow follow we do,” is how Nandan puts it. With time, this variety of informally-acquired skills can be an asset, making him more attractive for companies, and in turn he should be able to command a higher salary.

However, purely peer learning may have disastrous consequences in the long run, and are a poor excuse for companies whose responsibility is to provide formal, accredited and safe training for new workers. There is no way to ensure that the skills and methodology picked up by the supply workers are the safest, or most effective methods. Should bad habits and wrong procedures be established at a worksite, supply workers will be the ones learning such incorrect techniques as well. This would perpetuate unsafe or suboptimal practices in a workplace fraught with hazards. Lives and limbs may be lost when an accident occurs.

Aside from the diverse nature of tasks allocated to the workers who may not have received proper training, such short term jobs also present communication challenges, which may again affect safety on the job. Nandan has worked with people from different nationalities who may not share a common language. To overcome this, he has picked up a bit of Tamil and Chinese in order to ensure he understands his colleagues. This is still, very obviously too, not an ideal arrangement, for not all workers have the time, energy or ability to speak other languages. TWC2 Executive Committee member Alex Au comments, “We are always concerned about safety issues at a site where communication is poor. For a question like ‘Ready to lift?’ people may not understand, but the lifting may still commence.”

Misunderstandings, again, can lead to accidents. Or, less dramatically, to mistakes at work affecting the quality of the construction.

A third difficulty faced by workers of such nature is the irregularity of their salary. Workers whose employers have longer-term projects, such as the building of a MRT station, always have work. There is a roster that ensures no human resource is wasted on any day through poor planning. For the workers, this means a certain predictability and security of income.

Supply workers, on the other hand, face irregularity. From one week to the next, or even from one day to the next, they don’t know where they may be sent to. Sometimes, nowhere at all, if their employer cannot find a client who needs extra manpower.  Workers like Nandan do not receive pay if there are no projects to do. “If site finish job, come in sleep. One to two weeks, one month no job, no money,” Nandan laments.

If the worker decides not to work at a site for whatever reason – possibly related to harsh working conditions or inadequate training – they will not be allowed to choose another site more suited to them to work at.

Some employees, in desperation, find odd jobs outside to earn some extra cash to feed themselves. However, this puts themselves at huge risk of severe consequences if found out. A condition of their Work Permit is that they cannot work at any place not linked to their employer. A relatively lighter punishment may be a fine of a few hundred dollars, but it is also not unheard of for the worker to be sent back to his country and barred from returning to Singapore.

Yet, between waiting for the employer to find an assignment for them and pleas by family for remittances, what are they to do?

Supply workers may not constitute a majority of the foreign worker population here, but if the average foreign worker is already vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, with neither long-term security of job or income, supply workers are even worse off.

The difficult question may be how to improve their lot while preserving the flexibility that manpower supply companies (at least conceptually) provide to projects.