By TWC2 volunteers Joshua T and Gillian Chan, based on interviews in June and July 2020.

Hassan Kamrul (pictured above) suffered an injury three months and 15 days into his job at Guoxin Construction. Majumder Md Rasel suffered his injury eight months into his, at Genocean Construction.

The similarities between these two guys do not end there – they share a similar story entering Singapore’s foreign labor market. They both had to pay middlemen to secure jobs for them.

For his job at Guoxin – his sixth employer in Singapore – Kamrul paid $3,200. He borrowed the amount from a bank in Bangladesh, sent it to his cousin who was also working in Singapore, who then passed it on to a “relative” who ultimately connected Kamrul with the employer. The “relative” was actually a distant acquaintance of Kamrul’s family; Kamrul had never met him before and did not meet him through this transaction either.

For Majumder, Genocean was his second employer. With less experience under his belt, he found himself having to pay $6,000 to his recruiter, significantly more than Kamrul did.

But, like in Kamrul’s case, Majumder’s intermediary was also based in Singapore, and the money had to be sent through a circuitous route.

Curiously, the $6,000 wasn’t all that he had to pay. After arriving in Singapore, he was asked to pay more, he tells TWC2. An additional $2,500 in “application fees” was asked by the company or else he’d be sent back home immediately.

Such an additional demand is uncommon. One wonders whether it was because the intermediary failed to provide the employer with his cut of $2,500 and so the employer then had to extract it from the Majumder or whether this extra payment might all along have been expected by the employer, but the intermediary failed to disclose it to Majumder beforehand.

Whatever the explanation, this episode only illustrates the opacity that so charactierises Singapore’s migrant labour market and the vulnerability of workers to exploitation.

Illegal payments happen right here in Singapore

Opaque transactions are often ascribed to developing countries. We tend to think that illegal recruiters charging huge sums for job connections operate there and the problem is not Singapore’s responsibility. However, as these examples show, that is not true at all.

The abuses are occurring right here and the responsibility for ensuring transparency is ours.

Over the three and a half months that Kamrul worked before the accident, he estimates that he earned about $3,500. If he hadn’t spent a single dollar or sent any money back to support his family, this might have covered the $3,200 he paid to the recruiter. But he did pay the recruiter — he had no real choice — which means that he and his family are, financially, no better off today than when he first signed on for the job.

Majumder estimates that he made only about $5,100 over his eight months of employment till the accident, inclusive of overtime wages. This is far short of the $8,500 he paid to get the job. In his case, he has ended up poorer.

These are men who come to Singapore to perform valuable work. But is there any economic justice for them?