In June 2018, TWC2 volunteer Alston Ng went around asking Bangladeshi workers, “Why did you choose to come to Singapore to work?”

The words “neoliberal capitalism” are rarely heard in Singapore, but its message has nonetheless found a faithful following among Singaporeans. Markets are best optimised when left to run by itself, because the exercise of autonomy guarantees maximal societal welfare. By that argument, if workers have the right to choose, why bother with this prattle about foreign workers and their rights? If they play their cards right and work hard, what’s to stop them from rising above their stations in life?

The truth cannot be further from such naïve idealism; the concept of choice is often muted by circumstance.

Despite having already completed his first year in a college history course, Rahman Safiar was compelled to seek employment abroad due to urgent financial difficulties at home. Between the three paths that lay before him, working in Singapore seemed the least unpleasant.

One can hardly blame Safiar for dismissing other career options. In his view, Bangladesh is a land of “only rice farmers”. Like many others, he used to contribute to the family farm, a modest plot of land on which his family depended for subsistence. If there were any surplus crops, he explains, the surplus could fetch around 5,000 taka (approximately S$80) at the market. Such returns, however rare, were better than nothing. Safiar estimates that for every hundred working-age men in Bangladesh, only 50 are employed. Put simply, jobs are in scarce supply.

In Bangladesh paying for scarce jobs is the norm

A police station in Bangladesh

But won’t the odds favour a college student like Safiar? Safiar concedes that the public sector does soak up some better educated citizens like himself. But competition is stiff, and in an institutional environment like Bangladesh’s, there is unavoidably a parasitic shadow economy wrapping its tentacles around the recruitment process. Safiar recounts that, as part of an arrangement with a middleman, he would have had to pay 700,000 taka (about S$11,000) to gain an entry-level job in the public sector. Some of his friends, he claims, became policemen and schoolteachers because they “already have the money to pay.” It pays to be well-connected and well off.

Hosen Md Bulbul (pictured above) echoes Safiar’s cynicism, scoffing at the notion of gainful employment in Bangladesh. In a separate interview, Bulbul reveals that his previous job as a delivery driver in Bangladesh yielded highly variable wages, each month oscillating between 12,000 and 20,000 taka (around S$193 and S$320 respectively). Here the distinction between formal and informal employment is virtually imperceptible: while he specifically refers to his work as “salaried”, he also emphasises the precarity of his position. In fact, the only instance in which he passed up a delivery task directly led to his being fired. “Too many drivers. One bus, five workers,” Bulbul elaborates, highlighting the extent of underemployment in Bangladesh.

It is clearly not for the lack of effort that Safiar and Bulbul failed to find well-paying jobs. Mohammad Kamal, a middle-aged Bangladeshi who has spent the past four years in Singapore, claims that he devoted a year to his job search before resigning himself to working abroad. Because Bangladesh’s labour market is saturated by job-seekers, Kamal’s canvassing proved disappointingly fruitless.

But why not be his own boss and start a business? I ask. By his estimate, it would cost at least S$10,000 (621,000 taka) in upfront capital to establish a proper business in Bangladesh. Safiar, on the other hand, makes a more cautious estimate of S$20,000 (1,242,000 taka). While their estimates diverge somewhat, they were consonant in substance: entrepreneurship is a pipe-dream at best.

El Dorado abroad

In the face of such insuperable odds, the idea of working in Singapore offers a new direction. Kamal explains that prior to Singapore, he had worked in Malaysia for about five years because some of his friends were already there. His subsequent relocation was motivated by the belief that Singapore had a high and stable demand for foreign workers. Safiar explains, “Sometimes [former workers] come back (after) three to five years in Singapore. They get land, start business.”

Safiar thus hoped to join their ranks after a few years working here, but he soon found himself in a Sisyphean undertaking of working to pay off his agent fees instead of accumulating savings. His opinion of Singapore has since changed. The “greener pasture” is more like a dirt yard.

The shortage of viable jobs in Bangladesh is a structural constraint virtually insurmountable for breadwinners like Safiar, Bulbul and Kamal. From their vantage point, social mobility is the reserve of the already privileged; absent family connections and financial resources, the only route to survival is to place their chips on foreign employment with loans taken up for agent fees that they can barely repay. Some win big and return home to start their businesses; others lose catastrophically and are cheated of their salaries by unscrupulous employers or even lose their lives to workplace accidents.

The trickle of success stories from abroad become mesmerising beacons of hope when contrasted with the quotidian reality of joblessness at home. It drives job-seekers en masse into the arms of exploitative agents and employers. Under demographic pressure, undermined by poor governance, a “free market” easily devolves into a dysfunctional one. It cannot correct its own flaws to protect the likes of Safiar, Bulbul, and Kamal. The semblance of choice is little more than a mirage.