Rasu speaks with TWC2 volunteer Linus

By TWC2 volunteer Linus Chen, based on interviews in January 2021

Both Rasu and Raj Kumar are from India, but one is from Tamil Nadu state in the south and the other from Punjab state in the north. They first came to Singapore fifteen years apart. In those fifteen years, the training requirements for new construction workers changed considerably, but as can be seen from their stories, the changes may have made migrant workers more vulnerable.

It was in 1996 that Kuppusamy Kanagarasu — Rasu for short — came to Singapore for the first time to work as a bricklayer. Rasu had never received any formal training relevant to the construction industry. The following year, in 1997, Rasu, together with a few colleagues, was sent by his employer to a training centre in Toa Payoh, attending brickworking classes two evenings a week. Rasu continued to work during his training period, and his training expenses were covered by his employer. Upon completion of his three-month course, Rasu’s salary was raised 20 percent from $15 per day to $18.

The training landscape for foreign construction workers began to change in the late 1990s. The Building and Construction Authority of Singapore (BCA) introduced trade tests at the Skills Evaluation Certificate (Knowledge) or SEC(K) level in February 2000. Prospective workers have to undergo training at approved Overseas Training Centres (OTC) in their home countries in preparation for the SEC(K) test. At the end of their training periods, written and practical examinations are conducted by BCA examiners flown there from Singapore. Trainees must pass this assessment in order to be eligible for Singapore Work Permits.

Many OTCs are branches of Singapore firms but, as described in our 2013 article Training centres in Bangladesh have become money-minting machines, around them have grown a constellation of sub-training centres which are locally-owned and not subject to much control. Many workers report that their actual training was done at these sub-centres; only when they had to take the exams were they sent to the “official” OTCs.

Offshoring the training of our migrant labour from Singapore to their home countries has moved training operations out of the regulatory oversight of the Singapore government. Quality standards and fees have become harder to police. Even if BCA conducts the exams, one has to wonder if tools. materials or the general conditions of the workshops in any way compromise the integrity of the tests. As for fees, it has been documented, on our website and by others, how they have become opportunities for businesses to extract profits from aspiring workers’ dreams. See the 2013 article Training centres in Bangladesh have become money-minting machines and the 2014 article A visit to a skills training centre in Bangladesh.

“Just for show”

In 2011, Raj Kumar, from the northern Indian state of Punjab, paid an agent in his home village two lakh rupees (roughly $3,600) to secure a job as a construction worker in Singapore. His agent directed him to an overseas training centre (OTC) in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, 2,600km and a three-day train journey away. Unlike Rasu, whose training costs were covered by his employer, Raj had to pay a further one lakh rupees (about $1,800) for the training course out of his own pocket, leaving him deeply in debt to local moneylenders.

TWC2 have heard training centre operators claim that their course fees are what they are because they include accommodation for the duration of the course. However, Raj recalls that living conditions in the OTC were poor. Raj slept on the hard floor of a barren room, cramped together with 15 other men, and lacking even a fan to provide ventilation. As part of the training course, Raj and his fellow trainees from all over India performed heavy manual labour well into the evening, with few or no breaks in between.

Moreover, there was a language problem. Coming from Punjab, Raj Kumar’s languages are Hindi and Punjabi, with a smattering of English. However, the teaching at the OTC was conducted in Tamil, the language of Tamil Nadu state. Raj had difficulty understanding his trainers’ lessons, relying on a fellow trainee who spoke both Tamil and English to translate.

Unlike Rasu’s brickworking course which set him up to become a master bricklayer over the years, Raj tells us that the arduous course he attended in Chennai was of no relevance to his job. Raj had been hired as a cement mixer, but his training consisted entirely of metalworking. Referring to the certificate, he says, “the paper is just for show only” — in his own words.

At the end of his three-month training period, Raj and his fellow trainees took the SEC(K) trade test conducted by BCA. While Raj passed on his first try, he remembers that the failure rate in his OTC was extremely high, with only 40-50% of trainees managing to clear the exam. Those who failed were made to pay a further 50,000 rupees ($900) to the OTC if they wanted to sit for a re-test.

TWC2 recognises the need for stringent accreditation standards to ensure that our foreign workforce is trained to work in a safe and competent manner. However, the reliance on OTCs in preparing our migrant workers for work in Singapore has shifted the responsibility from the local to the transnational. Likewise, it has shifted the motivation from good quality training to money-making. It seems hardly to matter that plenty of students fail the exam, so long as they have all paid for the course.

Yet, skills and productivity are key enablers for Singapore’s progress. Self-interest alone, besides a moral responsibility towards safeguarding the rights and welfare of our migrant workers, demands attention to every step of their journey from home to Singapore. Our concerns should go beyond immediate employer-employee relations. We should be looking at systemic issues, ranging from living conditions to financial exploitation.