Harun holds up one of his pay slips

At 4:40pm, an email arrives from the Institute for Human Rights and Business requesting an article for their newsletter. There are too many things going on in the office and we don’t think about it till after 7pm.

When we finally turn to the matter, it becomes a question of finding a real-life story to ground the article. We have no preconceived notion of what we should say in our article; we will let whoever we meet take us in whichever direction his tale goes.

At 7:22pm, Harun Rashid comes by, says hello and regales us with a multi-faceted story. It is actually a tale of woe, but when a story has every new sentence revealing yet another thing gone wrong, it sounds more like a fast-paced crack-up than anything lugubrious. We have barely written down what he is saying — senior volunteer Pat Meyer is frustrated that her internet won’t connect, thus slowing her down — when at 7:32pm, Hossen Anuwar shows up. He too has a story to tell. Like Harun’s before him, it is told in a “Can you believe it?” style — testimony to the emotional strength of the men who, despite all their hardship, can laugh at what they have been through.

By 8pm, we have more than enough for an article for IHRB. The first draft exceeds the requested word length by 60%.

TWC2 assists around 2,000 workers a year. Every one of them has a story worth telling. Finding source material for stories is, as they say, “a piece of cake” at TWC2.

Hossen’s story

Hossen and his infant daughter

Before coming to Singapore, Hossen Anuwar, 30, worked at a mobile phone shop in a secondary city in Bangladesh, making 15,000 taka (about Singapore Dollars $250) a month. Married and with an infant daughter to support, he needed a better-paying job. That could only mean looking for an opportunity abroad.

He saw himself as lucky. An old school friend was by then a recruiter. He wasn’t a licensed one, but in TWC2’s experience, it is unlicenced recruiters in Bangladesh who are effective in finding jobs abroad. (What are licensed recruiters for then? Well, that’s another story for another day.) To come back to Hossen’s story, he paid $9,000 to this old school friend for a construction-industry job. “He’s a friend,” says Hossen, underlining how much trust he placed in his agent.

There is a rule, however, that to take up a construction job, one must first have a basic skills certificate. So, Hossen enrolled at a training centre in Dhaka for three months to acquire a certificate in aluminium formwork. Passing the exam made him eligible to work in Singapore. He paid $3,000 for the training course. In total, he paid $12,000 before he even stepped foot here.

Armed with a new qualification in aluminium formwork, he found a job in an electrical company as some kind of electrician’s assistant — nothing to do with either aluminium or formwork. Hossen didn’t know a thing about electrical work, but it’s not anything to worry about. “Oh, by the way, did I mention that I have a degree in social science?”

The job paid a basic salary of Singapore Dollars $468 per month. Considering that he paid a total of $12,000 to get it, what this means is that he paid the equivalent of 26 months of basic salary to obtain it. He would have to save every last dollar over 26 months — not a cent to be spent on food or soap — to recover this sunk cost.

“Were you hoodwinked by the agent?” we ask him. “Did he tell you clearly that the basic salary would be so low?”

“Yes, he did,” affirms Hossen. “But I was not worried. He said there’d be plenty of overtime.”

As it turned out, not that much. Around three hours a day on top of the regular eight hours — which was tiring enough. Hossen averaged $737 per month in gross salary.

“My friend cheated me,” Hossen states.  “I trusted him, but he cheated me.”

“And now, I cannot find him. I heard he has gone to Ireland.”

Unavoidably, we have a mental picture of the unlicensed recruiter fleeing his irate customers, all the way to Ireland to seek asylum. Another statistic to add to Europe’s refugee crisis.

The job lasted a mere three months. Hossen injured his back, the employer cancelled his Work Permit and he is now out of work. The unrecovered recruitment cost remains a heavy burden on him, his parents, wife and daughter.

Harun’s story

Harun Rashid, 29, came to Singapore in 2012 to work as a general labourer in a shipyard. He had to pay an unlicensed recruiter in Bangladesh the equivalent of Singapore Dollars $7,000 to find this job for him. The job paid a basic salary of $416 a month, or $2 per hour. The ratio of recruitment cost to monthly basic salary was 17.

Through the seven years that followed, Harun worked seven days a week with only the rarest of exceptions, such as public holidays. Often he worked ten to twelve hours a day.

“You were paid for your overtime, we hope?” TWC2 asks him.

“Yes, yes, paid,” he says, appearing happy. “But not 1.5 times.”

We query a bit further to confirm what we think he is saying. He was underpaid even for his overtime work. Instead of being paid at a rate of 1.5 times basic salary for overtime as required by the Employment Act, the employer paid overtime hours at the same rate as basic pay. Harun knew he was losing out on overtime wages, but he couldn’t afford to protest and risk his job.

“This went on for seven years?” we ask incredulously.

“Yes, seven years.”

There is more to tell us. “Salary every month have cutting,” Harun adds, using the word to refer to deductions. According to him, the employer made monthly “cuttings” from his salary for providing a bunk in a dormitory ($105 per month) and for providing meals ($144 per month). That didn’t leave him with much. In fact, the deductions got complex enough to make it hard to discern what exactly his real salary was.

In seven years, he had one salary increment. “Increase by ten cents,” he says with a cheeky smile.

“Ten cents?” we cannot believe we heard correctly. “Why bother?”

He was playing with us. It was a five percent increase from $2.00 per hour to $2.10 per hour, or $$436.80 per month. That was around 2014 when “fifty worker fighting boss”. Quite a vivid picture, but perhaps in reality it might have been more of an argument or threatened strike. “Then boss increase salary ten cents,” Harun explains.  There has not been another pay rise since.

This part of Harun’s second-half July pay slip shows how his total hours were all multiplied by a wage rate of $2.10 per hour, when the hours should have been segregated between basic hours and overtime hours, with the latter paid at 1.5 times basic rate.

We ask him how long it has been since he last took home leave. “No money, how to go home?” he answers rhetorically. He has not been home to see his family in seven years. We expect him to look downcast. Far from it. He goes “ha ha ha.”

Although Harun has earned enough to recover the $7,000 sunk cost of recruitment, it has come at a huge cost. He has denied himself all luxuries, including a weekly day off, or any home leave.

Then he too got injured and, like Hossen, is now out of work.

The big bad beast

The problems workers describe to us are often multi-layered and multi-faceted. For staff and volunteers trying to help them, they first have to understand the different elements and work out a way forward. But if we take a helicopter view, we can easily see that recruitment cost is the common big bad beast in their stories. It is so high, it throws them into a disadvantage even before they start work. Once paid, the sunk cost is something that makes the thought of losing the job unthinkable. When employers make unreasonable demands or even illegal moves, such as underpaying overtime hours, workers find themselves unable to assert their rights. Even when employers are fair, the need to earn as much as possible to recover the sunk cost may lead to taking on too much overtime work. Fatigue increases the risk of accident and injury.

Eliminating excessive recruitment cost would make a huge improvement to migrant workers’ situation. It won’t solve all their problems, but simply by reducing their vulnerability, they can resist exploitation better.

That’s why this issue of recruitment cost is central to TWC2’s work.