By TWC2 volunteer Yasha S, based on an interview in February 2019

About nine months into his job as a construction worker, Akanda felt ill. He told his supervisor he didn’t feel well. “I so weak feeling,” is how he describes that day, 9 February 2019, a Saturday. The boss was apparently close by, but “boss no talking,” and the supervisor’s response was “go away”.

Akanda says the crew was regularly overworked as the company was constantly short-staffed. “This place three man need, boss take [provide] only one man.” Along with overwork, he claims to have been made to work with no proper safety equipment, “No glove, no earplug…”.

Within the hour, his Work Permit was cancelled — employers can do this online — and an air ticket was bought for him. He was to go home to Bangladesh four days later.

Akanda didn’t immediately think he should to go the Ministry of Manpwer (MOM) and make a case, and it was his brother in Bangladesh who persuaded him to seek help with the authorities. “I no think MOM I go,” says Akanda about his initial hesitation. “I told my family I coming, I now go back…many problem”.

His hesitation may have something to do with a warning by the boss. Akanda says that he was offered $2,000 as severance money. “Boss say ‘come office’,” summoning him to the company office where the $2,000 was offered. “Boss say ‘Take and go back,’ and then he say ‘[if] you go MOM, I one dollar also don’t give’.”

Further reflection and his brother’s advice convinced Akanda that the boss had something to hide from MOM.

Salary claim

Akanda knew what it was: the fact that the company had been underpaying him all this while. He says the In-Principle Approval (IPA) letter he received from MOM before he joined the company showed a basic salary of $600 per month. But from the beginning, the boss insisted that he would only be paid at a basic rate of $480 a month. He couldn’t walk off the job from the start because he had paid $4,500 to the recruiter to get this job. He had to first break even through several months of earnings.

On or around 12 February 2019, he gathered his nerve and made his way to MOM.

He claims that a total of $3,000 was owed to him by the company. After three meetings with MOM, and a bit of compromise, his boss paid him $2,700 in cash to clear the outstanding due.

Akanda had borrowed to pay the $4,500 to the recruiter, and he still has an outstanding loan amount he must return to the lender. But fortunately, his older brother, the only breadwinner in his family now, is helping him pay off the outstanding debt.

Looking for a new job

Now that the salary case has concluded, MOM has given him a couple of weeks to find new employment. However, Akanda is very worried. As a construction worker with less than three years of experience, the chances of Akanda procuring new employment are slim. Many employers want employees with at least six years’ experience because of an MOM incentive. Employers of such workers enjoy a lower monthly levy (tax).

Furthermore, there is no organised job market for foreign workers in Singapore. Most openings are advertised through personal connections, especially illegal “agents” back home in Bangladesh, not on any public listing here in Singapore. Akanda has no contacts to help him in his search.

The time given to him by MOM to find a new job is also very short. He hopes to appeal for more time, but he is also aware that without a listing of available jobs, without any personal contacts, extra time may still not help his situation at all.

Is returning to Bangladesh a viable option?

“Now [if] I go Bangladesh, job no have,” he says. He cites his limited education. “I have no many education,” he admits, and anyway there is a paucity of available jobs back home. Even if he can find a job, it may not be near his home. “[If] company no near my house, need to pay many money,” to rent accommodation near the workplace.

Cases like Akanda’s are not uncommon, where a worker already in Singapore and looking for a job faces a tiny chance of success. It’s not that construction jobs are scarce here. It’s that employers are completely free to bring in fresh new workers from abroad despite the numbers in the pool of experienced migrant workers right here. TWC2 has long suggested some controls on the number of new arrivals to help those like Akanda who are desperately looking for a new job.

Circular migration is very damaging to these workers and their families. Every time they have to go home and use an illegal agent in the home country to find a new job in Singapore, they have to pay through their noses. Should Akanda fail to find a job while he is in Singapore and he has to go home, he will have to deal with the greedy agents there. For someone who still owes money over his first recruitment fee, having to borrow more money to pay for a new job will put the family into an even more precarious position.

By contrast, licensed agents in Singapore are regulated by law; they can only charge the equivalent of up to two months’ basic salary as their fee. If there is a better organised job market in Singapore, workers like Akanda will not have to go home and deal with illegal agents at all, and will benefit from lower costs.

So why isn’t there a more active, “official” job market here in Singapore for migrant workers? Why are illegal agents still cornering the business? Why do licensed agents have so few jobs to offer, but illegal agents so effective in matching workers with jobs?

TWC2 has a suspicion. The huge sums raked in by illegal agents may well be shared with employers. Employers may thus prefer to work through illegal agents rather than licensed ones.

While illegal agents and bosses get richer, families like Akanda’s end up poorer.