By volunteer Frank P, based on an interview in March 2020.

At first sight, Hossen Adnan looks like a perfectly healthy 20-something-year-old, but when you look at his hands you notice that his right thumb is swollen and held unnaturally stiff.  He tells me it was injured in an accident while carrying loads of metal in a shipyard.

He was on this job for about three years — his first job in Singapore. But this is a tale of wasted years. As Adnan totes up how much he paid to get the job and how much he’s actually earned, it’s a bleak picture.

The job ended with an accident in March 2019. In the twelve months since, he’s been out of work and struggling to get adequate medical care. If he is lucky, his disability compensation will  come through before long, allowing him to clear his debts. And then he’ll be back to square one again looking for a new job, but this time with a broken thumb. He or his family may not be better off than they were in 2016 when his journey began.

Recruitment fee nearly 20 times his base salary

2016 was when Adnan had to raise approximately $10,000 to pay a dalal for a job in a Singaporean shipyard. ‘Dalal’ is the Bengali word for a recruiter, typically an unlicensed one. Adnan was told he would earn $1,000 a month.

Most of the Bangladeshi workers I’ve met have had to use the services of a dalal who can offer them work overseas, so Adnan’s experience is relatively typical. In his case, the dalal was the brother of a friend.

The “$1,000 a month” dangled before him was a sum of daily wages and overtime wages (“OT”). The dalal assured Adnan that there would be lots of OT. At no point during Adnan’s recounting of his recruitment experiences does he speak of the employer. It is not clear whether the earnings figure given to him was made up by the dalal or authorised by the potential employer.

Regardless, based on that assurance from the dalal, Adnan borrowed 300,000 taka (about half the needed sum) from a local moneylender and the rest from his uncle to pay the dalal. The total amount of 550,000 taka was equivalent to nearly $10,000. The deal with the moneylender was for Adnan to pay him 30,000 taka a month for a period of two years.  This amounts to 720,000 taka, almost 2.5 times the amount Adnan borrowed. That’s a hefty interest rate.

Earnings turned out much lower than estimated

This might have been manageable if, during work, Adnan was paid the salary promised, but either the agent was misinformed or he lied.

Adnan’s starting pay was $20 a day (about $520 a month), increasing over the three years to $24 a day (about $624 a month). This is before a deduction of $230 (for housing and food), leaving him with a base pay of only about $400 a month, not enough to feed his family and repay his debts.  The promised overtime?  “Only maybe $60” on average, says Adnan,  “They [the dalal] say….plus overtime, but overtime only 20 hours [a month].”

The line given to Adnan was a subtle one: there would be the opportunity to earn up to $1,000.  The recruitment system that has developed to bring migrant workers to Singapore exploits individuals’ desire for opportunities to improve their lives and that of their families.  It profits not alongside them, but at their expense.  Institutions in Singapore and Bangladesh are either unaware of this exploitation, or lack the will to change it.

Despite his own personal hardship, Adnan doesn’t think himself the most unfortunate.  “I know men get 16 [dollars], even 14 a day,” he says, referring to other shipyard workers earning even less than he did for a day of manual labor.

Adnan points to where he’s injured.

In the end, no surgery

Adnan hasn’t worked since his accident on 6 March, 2019.  Around June or July 2019, his doctor felt that Adnan needed surgery to restore function in his thumb and, through Adnan, asked the employer to provide a Letter of Guarantee (LOG) to the hospital to pay for the operation. Months on, that guarantee has not materialised and Adnan has not had the needed surgery. He has given up waiting and plans to return to Bangladesh after a final medical evaluation determines how much financial compensation he is owed for the injury.

Unfortunately and ironically, I have to hope that the injury is serious, because more serious injuries are awarded larger amounts in compensation.

Coming back to his financial situation, Adnan tells me he managed to repay the money lender in full before his accident, but still owes money to his uncle.  “Sometimes he calls angry, says very long already.”  In addition to lending him money to help pay for Adnan’s initial agent fee, this understandably frustrated uncle has been giving Adnan’s family money for food since Adnan’s accident, now over a year ago.

“In Bangladesh, many people, few jobs,” Adnan tells me, emphasizing the contrast with his healthy hand by extending and then contracting his fingers, explaining the reason he wanted to work in Singapore in the first place.

But knowing now all that has happened, I wonder if he would have been better off if he had stayed home and never come to Singapore in the first place.

If his compensation comes through, he will return to Bangladesh for the first time since leaving in 2016. There should be enough money to finally repay his uncle.  However, that may leave him with very little to show for the three years he spent working in Singapore. Hopefully, he will find adequate medical care, even after returning, to restore his thumb and be able to enter the saturated job market with two working hands.

While it’s true that many of us have little to show for our early twenties, few pay so dearly for the privilege of finding out.