By TWC2 volunteer Nicole Lim, based on an interview in December 2020

It is clear the moment that Hossain Md Sadek steps into TWC2 that he has self-confidence from prior experience working in Singapore. Sadek, who understands English well from five years here, recounts the money aspects of how he got his latest job in a chemical engineering firm.

It’s also clear that self-confidence notwithstanding, Sadek cannot fight the forces of the migrant labour job market, which puts a price on available jobs. Even after hearing tale after tale about exorbitant agent fees, deception and scams, and even after having gone through the job-seeking process three times, Sadek still cannot escape the demands for payment, or the burden of debt that follows.

Five thousand dollars

In June 2018, Sadek was back home in Bangladesh looking for a new job. He found an agent who claimed to be able to link him up with an employer in Singapore (the chemical engineering firm) if he paid $4,500. Suspicious that it could be a scam, Sadek did not want to pay the agent directly in Bangladesh itself; instead he insisted on making the payment in Singapore.

Logically, it wouldn’t make it much safer; a scam would still be a scam, but perhaps Sadek thought that by insisting on paying someone in Singapore, it would compel the agent to prove that, at the very least, he really had connections in Singapore.

The agent agreed and nominated someone named Shohel as the recipient of the payment. Shohel was apparently a work permit holder in Singapore.

Sadek asked a relative (who was then working in Singapore) to contact Shohel to make the payment.

A little while later, Sadek heard from his relative that the money had been paid to Shohel and Shohel had successfully transferred the $4,500 to the boss of the chemical engineering company. Yet again, Sadek was very careful to fact check this information, this time through calling a friend in Singapore, Patoary , whom he had gotten to know through his relative and was also working in the chemical factory. Patoary also verified that the boss had received the money, though how exactly he knew that is not clear.

Soon after, Sadek received an In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit (IPA), which confirmed that the job and work permit were waiting for him. For more information about IPAs, see http://twc2.org.sg/what-we-say/glossary/

Emigration Card and air ticket

Sadek then had to go through the formalities on the Bangladeshi side.

Through a travel agent, he applied for an Emigration Card. The travel agent charged him the equivalent of $150 when, according to a newspaper article dating from 2018 — the same year he was looking for a job — the actual cost was 250 Bangladeshi taka (about $4).

The travel agent also arranged an air ticket to Singapore on 24 December 2018, which cost another $300.

In total, Sadek spent $5000 before he even stepped foot in Singapore.

Borrowing

We ask Sadek how he had $5,000 to spare. The amount is roughly 320,000 Bangladeshi taka. He explains that he borrowed 200,000 taka from Brac Bank and the remainder from his relatives. Sadek says he repaid the bank in full within a year (i.e. by end 2019) after cutting down his own expenses and saving as much as he could, but he hasn’t repaid his relatives.

Since borrowing from any bank incurs interest, we ask Sadek: So, how much did you have to repay the bank in total?

260 000 taka, he replies. That is roughly $4,064, or about 72% of his annual basic salary of $5,616 (12 months x $468 per month). To be accurate, he didn’t only earn $5,616 in his first year since there was also overtime wages, but the latter do not add much.

Worth noting too is that having to repay 260,000 taka for a loan principal of 200,000 taka within a year means an interest rate of 30%, which is quite breathtaking.

That 30% interest came to about $937. In other words, his total outlay to get the job was not $5,000 but closer to $6,000.

And there is also the outstanding loan taken from relatives. Sadek laments that he is “short of two thousand” that he needs, a situation not helped at all by the Covid-19 pandemic and shutdowns.

This story is not about Sadek being careless in his job search and getting a bad deal. In fact, he took what precautions he could. Nor is it about him going to a bad lender, for Brac Bank has been lauded as being relatively supportive of migrants. Sadek’s case is as good as one might expect. And yet, experienced worker though he is, he has had to pay and pay.