In August 2019, we assembled eleven marine-sector migrant workers to make a short video. Due to restrictions on release, we cannot post the video on any public platform including this site. However, we can say here what the men told us about their recruitment costs — the subject of the video. To protect their identities, we have changed their names.

Recruitment costs is probably the single most important factor that disempowers migrant workers and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. Having paid a large sum of money to secure a job, they cannot afford to lose it. Employers are therefore in a strong position to make unreasonable demands in the certainty that workers will have no choice but to accede.

The participants were signed up within a space of about 30 minutes at TWC2’s food station. As each worker came, we asked him which industry sector he was in. If he said “Marine” (a term used interchangeably with “shipyard”) we asked him whether he would agree to participate in a short video. We aimed to get twelve participants. As it turned out, of the first twelve men who came by who said “Marine”, all twelve agreed to participate. We think our assurance that the video would not be publicly released helped obtain a good sign-up rate.

We did not ask any man during the signing-up window what their recruitment cost or salary was. There was no filtering of participants whatsoever beyond making sure that they were shipyard workers.

Only when the men were seated in front of the camera on filming day (two days later) did we ask them about their recruitment cost or salaries.

On filming day

One of the twelve men couldn’t come on filming day. He had an urgent appointment elsewhere. That was how we were left with eleven participants.

In front of the camera, after confirming that they were shipyard workers, the men were each asked the same four questions.

  1. How much did they pay for recruitment cost (also called “agent fees” or “agent money”) for their present job?
  2. Was this their first, second, third or fourth job in Singapore?
  3. How long were they at the job?
  4. How much was their starting basic monthly salary?

(It turned out that none of the men were on their third, fourth or later jobs. We only had participants in their first or second jobs.)


From their answers to the first and fourth question, we can derive for each man the multiple of his recruitment cost over his starting basic salary. This multiple indicates how months he would have to work to break even on his sunk cost. As the numbers in the table below will show, the multiples are quite shocking, evidencing the scale of exploitation in the industry.

For seven of our eleven men, the multiple was between 18 to 22 times the basic salary. It would take a year and a half to two years to make back what they paid their recruiters.

In practical terms however, the actual break-even period may vary. What the multiple shows is the number of months he must earn his basic salary, and spend no money at all on food, soap or other necessities — not even send money home to support the family — in order to recoup the recruitment cost. This is impossible; people must eat. Many men take much longer than two years to recover the sunk cost.

On the other hand, most workers do get overtime work and thus overtime wages. This can add 20 – 50% to their basic salary if there is regular overtime work. But not all jobs come with regular overtime work, and the additional income cannot be taken as assured.

There are two other observations were can make from their answers.

Firstly, the amount demanded for agent fees does not seem to vary much over time. Whether the man had come to his present job seven years ago or only a few months ago, the amount paid was roughly in the same ballpark.

Secondly, those in their second jobs possibly had better bargaining power and enjoyed a lower agent fee. Of the five men in their second jobs, three of them had multiples in the range of 8 to 10 times basic salary. The fourth man had a multiple of 16.2 and the fifth man a multiple of 19.2 (no different than those on their first jobs).