By TWC2 volunteer Teo Shien-Min, based on an interview in July 2020
Chokder has been in Singapore for the past eight years and that seems to have rubbed off on him when I see his confident stature while articulating his story to TWC2. He responds to every question with ready answers. There is zero hesitation when recollecting numbers and dates.
In these eight years, Chokder has been employed at three different companies. I ask him to tell me how much he paid for each job and how each turned out financially.
First job: win
Chokder first started searching for work in Singapore back in 2011. He talked to friends who introduced him to a trusted “agent” back home in Bangladesh. Typically, these aren’t licensed agents but freelance recruiters operating outside the law. The agent fee amounted to about $8,000, which Chokder successfully pooled together from the generosity of his uncles who agreed to provide him with a loan.
From that moment began Chokder’s training journey. He spent a few months at a training centre to acquire a basic skills certificate to make him eligible for a construction job here. The job that the “agent” found for him paid $18 a day (roughly $468 per month) in basic salary.
Chokder remained at this first job for four years, seeing an increase in his basic salary from the initial $18 to $24 a day (roughly $624 per month).
“How long before you could earn back the $8,000 that you paid to the agent?” I ask.
“Two years,” he replies.
That sounds about right. From his basic salary alone, he would have earned $11,232 (i.e. 24 months x $468 per month) over two years. If he had overtime wages, there would have been enough left over to feed himself and send some money back to his family.
Second job: draw
After four years at the first company, Chokder returned home to Bangladesh and after a lapse of a year or two, he sourced for a second job in Singapore through an “agent” once again. This time around, the recruitment fees were a little lower, at about $4,000.
His second job paid him $19 a day (roughly $494 per month) and he says he managed to recoup this $4,000 through eight months of work. Just barely.
The job didn’t last beyond eight months.
I ask about the reasons behind leaving the second job after less than a year, but Chokder says there was no particular reason in choosing to do so. He is probably being diplomatic. Jobs are precious and it takes a big issue, such as a major disagreement with the boss, to compel a worker to quit.
Third job: lose
His third and most recent job at a construction company cost him about $3,000 in agent fees. His salary was $24 a day (roughly $624 per month) but six months into the job, on 6 June 2019, he fell two metres at the building site. He injured himself, the employer cancelled his Work Permit, and he has been unemployed for the 13 months since. (This interview took place in early July 2020.)
Chokder’s days are blank with boredom. “I have nothing to do,” is how he puts it.
His daily routine consists of praying, eating and catching up with his loved ones over the phone. At least he is content living in his safe and comfortable room here in Little India, for which he pays $270 per month in rent — for the bedspace.
With Covid-19 and its travel restrictions, Chokder is hoping that there will soon be flights back to Bangladesh. Twice, he tells me that he has come to the important realisation that family comes first. Moreover, his daughter never ceases to remind him that the family needs him more than what Singapore has promised him with – a job and income.
“No need money, we need you. My daughter tells me”, Chokder shares with me an underlying sense of sureness that he needs to return to Bangladesh as soon as possible.
When you think about it, if Chokder had not been required to pay agent fees all three times (a total of approximately $15,000), he could have saved enough to buffer his injury misfortune and at the same time, better support his wife and four-year old daughter back in Bangladesh.
These absurdly high “agent” fees are millstones around workers’ necks.
Recognising this, recruitment reform is one of the top priorities for TWC2, says Alex Au, the current vice-president, though “it won’t be easy to change the landscape because there are plenty of vested interests in the existing, exploitative, system.”
“What is encouraging though is that many top corporate leaders and thought-leaders in Singapore are beginning to see that something must be done about unethical recruitment practices. Inaction is the same as condoning them. Neglect is culpability too.”