By TWC2 volunteer Randall Go based on an interview in June 2020.
On 6 November 2019, Sudeb took a 2.5m fall from a ladder while working. He has since been unemployed. It has been very tough financially for Sudeb, especially during this Covid-19 pandemic. However, hardship is not unfamiliar to this 32-year-old from Bangladesh.
It all began in 2011 when Sudeb decided to find work in Singapore. He found a recruiter in Bangladesh who arranged his first job here — for a fee of about $8,000. His family sold some land, emptied out their savings and even borrowed from relatives to scrape together this amount. One might think that this $8000 would have gotten him a job with a high salary. Nope. It was only for manual labourer’s position for $18 a day.
For a bit of perspective, if a student worked a 3-hour-shift at a Mcdonald’s, the student would earn more than Sudeb’s day wage.
In less than a year, he was told to return home due to the company’s inability to meet the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) foreign worker quota. The quota is meant to restrict the number of foreign workers a company can hire, based on the number of local employees who are paid at least $1,400 a month. In the construction sector, for every local employee with this salary (or higher), a company can hire seven more foreign workers.
When the company had to reduce the number of foreign employees to stay within the quota, Sudeb was let go due to his inexperience.
He was determined to give it another shot. He had not broken even with that first recruiter’s fee but still managed to borrow and raise another $4,500 to secure another job.
Four months later, he was with his third employer. Sudeb’s story is like this — a rapid succession of job changes, almost too many to count.
This third job is what brings a sparkle to his eyes as he describes the experience. He is proud of this job. He was involved in the construction of the Downtown Line of Singapore’s metro system, specifically the Tampines and Bedok Reservoir stations. The project lasted about three years, after which he felt he had finally succeeded in life. He went home to Bangladesh with something to show for his labour.
But soon, he was back to misfortune.
In one of his subsequent attempts at getting a new job, he was told to pay $3,300, which he did. But after arriving in Singapore, there was no such company stated on his In-Principle Approval (IPA) letter. He was devastated, his situation made worse by having to spend the next few months in expensive Singapore unemployed, living off his savings and trying to resolve the case.
At wit’s end, he phoned his first employer — the one who had to let him go due to the foreign worker quota — and asked if he could help. And that led to a lucky break, this employer hiring him for almost half a year before Sudeb again returned home.
The next job cost $4,300. During the course of this job, the budding electrician decided to upgrade himself. He enrolled for a month-long course that came under the Building and Construction Authority’s scheme known as Construction Registration of Tradesmen (CoreTrade). Knowing that this investment and certification would be beneficial for him in the long run, he paid the $1,250 himself. Every night, for a month, after a long day’s work, he would attend the night classes.
“It was tiring,” he says, but he knew it would be worth it.
Happily, the job he had was also relatively stable, and Sudeb stayed with the company until the end of 2018.
His next agent only charged him $1,600. Compared to what he had paid to his previous recruiters, it was much more affordable. He was beginning to benefit from his CoreTrade certification and his years of experience. He was now much more valuable and in demand.
Even so, he hit another obstacle. When life was supposed to get better, it turned out that this employer did not have projects and did not pay him a cent for five months straight. Sudeb filed a salary claim at MOM with the help of TWC2. The case was eventually settled with a payment of $3,800 — far less than what he was owed for five months’ wages.
This time though, he got a transfer without having to go home. He switched to his last employer… and fell off a ladder.
He is back at TWC2 for help while his injury claim is pending.
I do a quick addition of how much he has paid recruiters over the years for a procession of jobs: $21,700.
Yet, sitting and speaking to me, he does not look despondent. He seems to emerge stronger every time, determined to rise above his circumstances. He’s still climbing the ladder of a migrant worker’s life.