One of the most striking features of migrant labour employment in Singapore’s construction industry is the way different nationalities tend to perform different tasks at the worksite. Consequently, wages tend to vary by nationality.

Look closely at any construction site and one will see Chinese workers doing the highly skilled work such as tiling or plastering – work that needs experience to ensure a very smooth or level surface. Bangladeshis are often seen doing the “general” work, such as moving materials around or clearing up debris. Indians are somewhere in between; for example, a lot of the electrical work is done by them. Burmese, on the other hand, tend to make up the painting or airconditioning crews.

Apparently, there is logic behind this seeming arbitrariness. And the root cause of such segmentation may well lie outside Singapore in the source countries themselves.

Katie Rainwater (Cornell University) has published an interesting study comparing Bangladeshi and Thai workers doing construction work in Singapore. She used to volunteer with TWC2 when she was based in Singapore some years ago, which was also when she did her fieldwork.

In her study’s concluding remarks, she wrote,

class socialization in the origin country may contribute to the segmentation of guestworker labour markets in the destination country to the extent that it informs workplace performance.

She was however quick to emphasize that migrants’ differently classed backgrounds is likely not the only factor at work; among other factors could well be a degree of racism in employers’ attitudes creating different outcomes for one group compared to another.

Rural backgrounds

Rainwater interviewed 17 Thai workers and 15 Bangladeshis for her study between May and June 2013. She took care to interview those hired as “basic skilled workers” on their first contract in Singapore. Their ages ranged from 25 to 45, and had worked in Singapore between two and 11 years.

Both groups of workers originate in rural areas and seek work in Singapore because of a lack of satisfying employment opportunities in their home communities. Nevertheless, there are also significant differences between the migrant groups captured in the life stories.

Thai workers grew up having to help around the farm or to supplement farm income by doing off-farm work such as tractor-driving, welding or carpentry. Many had worked at Thai construction sites before seeking to come to Singapore for better wages. They were accustomed to blue-collar work.

Bangladeshis did not typically do farm work while growing up, and only three of 15 Bangladeshi interviewees held any job at all prior to coming to Singapore. They were largely in school or “socialising” until they arrived here. The three who had prior jobs were: a part-time video clip editor, a quality inspector in a factory and a motorcycle mechanic. None of the 15 Bangladeshi interviewees had worked in construction prior to coming to Singapore.

(I)t seems probable that first-time Thai migrants have a greater aptitude for construction labour than do first-time Bangladeshis…. Thais often arrive in Singapore with prior construction experience and some construction skills.

Rainwater points out that the distribution of agricultural land in rural Thailand is more egalitarian than in Bangladesh. Thai families historically worked their own land with intermittent input from other community members through labour exchange, i.e. one family helping another when eextr hands were needed.

In rural Bangladesh, land distribution is more uneven and the middle-class landowners self-identify as non-labourers. They hire landless villagers to work their land for them. The sons of this rural middle-class – who would be the future construction workers in Singapore – would not be expected to contribute any physical labour.

This also shows up in the educational attainment of Thai and Bangladeshi migrants in Singapore. Rainwater’s Thai respondents seldom had more than a primary school education, whilst the Bangladeshis often reported having completed secondary school. Some even had been to college.

‘One Thai is equivalent to two Bangladeshis’

One employment agent told Rainwater that Singaporean firms saw more value in hiring “hardened Thai farmers” than “Bangladeshi schoolboys”. She also reported their observation that Thais could be left alone to complete a task – and they would do it on time and to the employer’s satisfaction – whilst Bangladeshis were known to sit around if the supervisor was absent.

Not only does this impact wages, it also appears to relate to employment relationships. Being less valued, the Bangladeshis are more often employees of manpower supply companies. These firms provide temporary labour, whenever needed, to firms doing the construction work. By contrast, the more valuable and skilled workers — Thais and Chinese — are more often the direct employees of the construction firms.

TWC2 has observed from our casework that being employed by a manpower supply company and used as temporary stop-gap labour, Bangladeshis experience far more job insecurity and instability. One week there is work, another week there isn’t. These firms are also poorly capitalised and highly dependent on construction firms (the manpower suppliers’ clients) for regular cashflow, without which workers’ wages are delayed.

We have also noticed that many Bangladeshis, especially those in their first jobs, do not have the physical strength to be construction workers. As a consequence, they are prone to injuries.

The greater risk of salary problems and workplace injuries goes a long way to explaining why Bangladeshis are overrepresented in TWC2’s caseload.

How recruitment cost plays a role in segmentation

Why don’t the labourers on Bangladeshi farms migrate to Singapore in the same way that the Thai labourers do? Why, instead, do we see the sons of landowners coming here? There’s a simple answer: The Bangladeshi labourers cannot afford the recruitment costs.

Katie Rainwater provided some figures from 2013: In that year, first-time Thai migrants were charged the equivalent of $4,000 in employment agency fees; Bangladeshis paid about twice this much, an average of nearly $7,256. Considering that the average landless Bangladeshi labourer is poorer than the Thai farmworker, this is a formidable barrier to the former.

More recent data from TWC2 has Bangladeshi recruitment fees going up beyond $10,000. We don’t have recent data for Thai workers (who are anyway reducing in numbers), but we can get a sense of where it might currently be by looking at what Burmese are paying. In December 2021, we met three Myanmar workers and asked them what they paid to get their first jobs. Burmese (Myanmar) workers would be most similar to the Thais. One man paid nothing for recruitment, another paid $1,500 and the third man paid $2,900.

The Burmese worker who paid nothing for recruitment was a skilled carpenter. His job was to build custom-fitted furniture for ship cabins off drawings given to him. He would work almost single-handedly to build each cabin without much supervision.

Not only is recruitment cost much higher for Bangladeshis, their starting salaries are also lower. They thus take far longer to earn back what they invest to “buy” their jobs. A typical starting salary for a first-time Bangladeshi worker is $18 a day, or about $468 a month. Rainwater reported that Thai workers had starting salaries of $23 per day, or $598 per month.

Macro effects on construction productivity in Singapore

Rainwater did not discuss macro effects on productivity in our construction sector, but this really needs to be brought into the conversation.

Her study shows how Singapore’s abject failure to bring recruitment costs under control is linked to low productivity. It’s the sons of land-owners who can afford the exorbitant recruitment fees out of Bangladesh, yet they are often considered less than optimum a group for construction work. This might not be a big problem if there were only a few Bangladeshis, but that is not the case. Bangladeshis along with Indians are the two largest nationalities in our construction labour force. There are very few Thais left. Our labour force is skewed towards the group whom employers consider less productive.

As we have discusseed in many previous articles at this site, Singapore employers ofetn rely on informal, unlicensed agents to find workers for them from Bangladesh. However, these agents’ prime interest is to extract as much money as possible, not to provide the best skills and aptitude match for employers. Incentives are thus badly misaligned.

Meanwhile, the depressed wages of Bangladeshis – depressed perhaps because employers (rightly or wrongly) do not consider them worth much more – create a misguided sense among bosses as to what an appropriate wage should be for physical construction work. Rainwater however added that it might not be as simple as that. It is possible that the low wages are demotivating the Bangladeshi workers, thus producing the low productivity we constantly complain about. Regardless of cause and effect, it is undeniable that Singapore has come to see construction work as unworthy of decent salaries. Resistant to paying more, Singapore then has a hard time attracting the skilled and more productive labour we need.

Yet, TWC2 is acutely aware that if we raise wages among Bangladeshi workers under present circumstances, the ones who will benefit the most will be the agents. Straight away, the agents will raise their expected fees, telling prospective workers that since the job pays more, the commission for the placement should be higher. The workers then go deeper into debt to pay the raised fees. This only goes to show how important it is to eliminate these avaricious agents; unless we do that, we cannot hope to make good progress towards a leaner, higher-skilled workforce.