This is Hossain Imran sitting at TWC2’s free meals programme, the Cuff Road Project. He has just started on a new job, but wanted to visit us after work. “When I come here, I feel very happy,” he says. He was on our meals programme in 2016 after a workplace accident. We were his comfort and bedrock through those difficult months.

Since he has only just arrived in Singapore for a new job, we take the opportunity to ask him how he found this job and how much he paid for it. However, he begins his story by telling us how he got his first job in 2015.

“I pay $20,000 in total,” he says. “That job very expensive.”

Skills training and test

He first signed up with a skills training centre in Bangladesh called Bangladesh Training Centre (BTC) which charged him $10,000 for a basic construction skills course in curtain wall installation.

Such courses normally take three months.

Imran calls BTC a “subcon training centre”, by which he means that it’s not one that is recognised by Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA). Several years ago, TWC2 investigated this issue and found nearly a hundred such unapproved training centres in Bangladesh alone.

See our earlier articles
Training centres in Bangladesh have become money-minting machines, and
In 1997, the employer paid for training, in 2011 it was a money-sucking “show”.

Aspiring construction workers like Imran need to pass a skills examination at one of the BCA-recognised training and testing centres, even if the training took place elsewhere. So, training centres like BTC have to “borrow” testing slots for their trainees from the approved training centres. Unsurprisingly, the approved training centres give priority to their own trainees, and only if there are unused test slots remaining are these offered to the multitude of unapproved training centres.

“Every month two, three or five man” were all that BTC could send to one of the approved centres to take the skills test, Imran says. He speaks of a quota.

Actually, the quota isn’t small.  Around 2012, when we looked at the issue, we found that BCA tested about 5,000 candidates each month, but there were so many unrecognised training centres, only a few candidates from each centre could get a test slot.

“How long did you wait before you could get a test slot?” we ask Imran.”One year eight months,” he replied. The wait for a test slot was six times as long as the usual duration of the training course (three months).

When he was finally given a date, Imran was sent to Progressive Test Centre to take his skills test. Progressive is a BCA-approved test centre.

After passing his test, and acquiring what is officially known as a basic Skills Evaluation Certificate (Knowledge), abbreviated to SEC(K), it was time to look for a job in Singapore.

Looking for his first job here

A recruiter connected with BTC offered his services to Imran, but quoted him $12,000. Imran demurred. Instead, he turned to another recruiter he had come to know in his village, who asked for $10,000. That was still a prince’s ransom, but it was a reality young men like Imran could not escape from.

Fortunately, this village recruiter delivered. Within 40 days, a job was found for Imran (with Joydom Engineering Pte Ltd) and he started work here in October 2015. The basic salary for this job was $18 a day, or about $468 a month. The $20,000 he paid in total to get to this point was equivalent to 43 months’ of basic salary – three and a half years.

The job involved bending, cutting and assembling steel reinforcement bars. “Very hard work,” Imran says. It was completely unrelated to the skills course (and test certification) that he took, which was curtain wall installation.

“Did you know anything at all about rebars when you started?” we ask him.

“Nothing. I don’t know anything.”

“Were you informed before you started on this Joydom Engineering job that it would involve rebars and not curtain walls?”

“I did not know,” he says. “Nobody tell me.” He says this with an ordinariness as if not telling employees what the job will be about is the most normal thing in the world.

Fast forward to June 2022

In June 2022, Imran was in his second job here. He was facing all sorts of problems, with his family and in his job (“this second company not pay salary properly”). He had more or less decided to quit. By chance, someone approached him while he was on a train and introduced himself as a renovation contractor looking for workers. However, Imran was not sure if he would be able to return to Singapore so soon after quitting and did not seize the opportunity immediately.

It was only after his return to Bangladesh and having sorted out whatever family issues there were that he contacted the renovation contractor again. A few calls later, an In-Principle Approval for a Work Permit (IPA) – a document issued by the Ministry of Manpower – was sent to him via WhatsApp.

Without delay, Imran attended to the necessary pre-departure formalities. First, he went to the district government office  to submit his passport and a copy of the IPA. The District Office forwarded the documents on to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) in Dhaka. Bangladesh requires its citizens wanting to work abroad to register at BMET.

Four days later, the documents came back, together with a newly minted “BMET smart card”. See our article World’s only single-use smart card?

“How much did you have to pay BMET?” we ask Imran.

“6,500 taka,” he replied. That is about $96 in Singapore currency.

Just to be sure, we ask him whether he had to make any other payment (e.g. under the table payments) to get his registration processed at the District Office and BMET. None at all, says Imran.

Next, he went to a travel agent in his village, where he bought a flight ticket to Singapore for 28,000 taka ($414). He then packed his bags, kissed his wife and nine-month old child, took the bus to capital city Dhaka and flew to Singapore.

“What’s the basic salary in this new job?” we ask him.

“$38”. He gives us a daily rate, which is equivalent to $988 a month. He adds, “but everyday have about two hour overtime” – something he noticed after having started on the job. It will allow him to earn extra.

“Very difficult” problem for bureaucrats

Recruitment costs imposed on workers are stepping stones to labour exploitation and in extreme cases, to modern slavery. TWC2 has been highlighting this issue for over ten years.

No doubt the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) agrees that this is a serious problem that must be tackled, but the scourge continues unabated.

The problem is a simple one: MOM is stuck in a cognitive loop. It seems only to want to approach the issue from a criminal justice angle:

  • Wait for workers to report abuses;
  • investigate and,
  • in a handful of cases, “take employers to task”.

(TWC2 is never sure that that last expression really means. Rapping knuckles might well count.)

The criminal justice approach has its uses, but it requires evidence to work. It is often rendered impotent by reality: the black economy of recruitment payments is a noxious warren run by people who know how to cover their tracks.

Not difficult if we go for system reform

TWC2 has long argued that system reform offers a better path forward.

Hossain Imran’s story shows us where the problem lies and what the solution should be. The intermediaries between him and the employer were the problem. They held him by his throat in 2015, extracting $20,000 from him for a job that paid only $468 a month because he had no other channels through which to find job vacancies.

In contrast, for his latest job, he negotiated it directly with an employer. Ultimately, Imran paid just $510.

But Imran’s was a lucky break. It was by sheer chance that the prospective employer spoke to him on the train. Workers shouldn’t have to rely on chance. We have to create a job-matching platform for all foreign workers, connecting them to employers directly. See our article Recruitment reform — what needs to be done.

We are fully alert to the certainty that, once a Singapore-wide job-matching platform is established, all manner of shady recruiters will attempt to crowd onto it. But there are preventive measures that can be designed into the system. For example, access to the platform may be restricted to

  • Singapore companies holding work permit quotas;
  • Singapore-licensed employment agencies;
  • Foreign workers who have worked in Singapore before (like Imran in 2022) and who have been issued a Singpass (a digital identity) while here.

Naturally, any worker using the platform should only be allowed to apply for a job for himself. No one should have the option to apply on behalf of someone else.

The issue may be more difficult with respect to prospective workers who have never been in Singapore before. They won’t yet have been issued Singpasses. How are they to log in to the platform? Yet, if we allow non-Singpass holders onto the platform, how do we keep shady recruiters out?

One possibility is to leverage the SEC(K) certification. Perhaps each candidate who has passed the test can be issued login credentials, valid for one year, to access the platform to find a job.

But to be frank, there is a bigger problem with the SEC(K) system that needs a major rethink before we link it to a recruitment platform. As Hossain Imran’s story shows, the SEC(K) does not serve any real purpose. Imran passed his test in curtain wall installation, but got a job working on rebars, for which he knew absolutely nothing. As things stand, the training and skills testing requirement of the Building and Construction Authority only sustains the delusion that we are raising skills and productivity in Singapore, when all it does is to give training centres licence to print money.

TWC2 has ideas for how to reshape the recruitment of first-time workers that helps them escape the claws of training centres and recruiters, but that is for another article, another day.