By TWC2 volunteer Isabel D, based on an interview in August 2020

Shahadat has worked in Singapore for the past eight years, with four different companies. His third and fourth jobs were riddled with difficulties, leaving him uncertain of the future and more importantly, his family’s livelihood.

He found his third job in 2019, but the placement fee demanded by the “agent” — probably an illegal job broker — was $5,000. To raise this amount, he took a microfinancing loan of 350,000 Bangladeshi taka (a little over $5,000) from what he calls an “NGO” — in his words. We ask for the name of this “NGO”. He says “Buro” and with a few seconds of websearching, we find it refers to an organisation called Basic Unit for Resources and Opportunities (BURO) Bangladesh.

Buro claims on its website to be

a national non-government social development organization [that] was established in 1990 intended to work for the poor and rural people to reduce human poverty and also increase the income. Over the period, the organization emerges as a front ranking specialized microfinance institution. It provides high quality flexible financial and social services to one million low-income people, particularly the poor women.

Notably, however, Shahadat says that the loan had to be repaid with monthly instalments of 20,000 taka every month, over three years. We do a quick calculation. Having to pay 20,000 taka over 36 months, the total sum to be paid to the bank would be 720,000 taka.

Measured against the principal sum of 350,000 taka, it implies a compounded interest rate of 27.2 percent per annum in the best case scenario. By comparison, Singapore banks’ average rate of interest is 3.88%.

Shahadat sent the $5,000 (converted from taka) to his friend in Singapore to pay the “agent” who was also in Singapore.

Shahadat could not afford to be daunted by the high interest rate. After all, he could rely on the prospect of a steady income that would provide him with a monthly salary, as promised, of about $1,000. This was enough for him to slowly repay the stipulated sum every month — the 20,000 taka monthly repayment would equate to about $330 — and still have an adequate amount for his parents, his wife and a 20-month-old daughter back in Bangladesh.

The $1,000 salary turned out to be iffy. His actual basic salary was only $20 a day or about $520 a month. It would take an awful amount of overtime work to earn $1,000 a month in total, assuming that the employer didn’t make deductions for housing, etc. But overtime work cannot be had just by asking. It depends on the project; sometimes there is overtime work, sometimes there isn’t.

More seriously, Shahadat realised, after a few days of work, that the company lacked safety standards. He was enlisted to do formwork, an area of work that he had years of experience in. He knew the ins and outs of formwork and its most basic safety guidelines that had to be adhered to, but even the simplest regulations were being violated, he tells TWC2.

At this point, Shahadat was in a dilemma. What could he possibly do? If he left, he would be without a job, and needless to say, without a steady income to support his family and repay the loan that was looming over him. On the other hand, if he stayed, he would be endangering his life – working at a construction site where a serious injury was just waiting to happen.

After working there for 45 days, Shahadat decided that he valued his life.

He had to look for another job again. And pay again.

Things seemed to take a turn for the better in June 2019, when he managed to secure his fourth job with Rich-link Construction Pte Ltd. Unfortunately, this would be short-lived too. Two months after he started work with Rich-link, he incurred a serious injury that left him unable to continue work. Shahadat was now cut off from a steady income once again.

The Rich-Link job didn’t come free. For this job, he had to pay $3,000. He borrowed again though he doesn’t go into the details of how he managed to find the money. He seemed to get increasingly depressed as he talks about the history.

When asked how he feels after all this, he looks down at his hands and simply says: “Many problems. Many feelings.”

For a while, there was a glimmer of hope. His brother, who works in Saudi Arabia, attempted to pick up where he left off with the loan repayments. However, with Covid-19, his brother’s work also came to a halt, with his employers now providing him with mere lunch money.

Shahadat tells us that the family is thus forced into an uncomfortable arrangement with the bank where his family will repay the loan every alternate month, leaving them with just enough to get by. If the family still cannot keep up the repayments, he adds, the police may get involved.

Towards the end of the interview, Shahadat takes his phone from his pocket. “See my wife and baby,” he says. Opening his photos app, he swipes through his camera roll that is filled with pictures of his baby girl. If only for a moment, being reminded of his little one back home makes the weight of the world on his shoulders just a tad lighter.