Father Selim (L) and son Ashik (R) was/is a migrant worker in Singapore

Masud (not his real name) walked up to TWC2 President Debbie Fordyce while she was waiting for the train at Farrer Park station. He recognised her – Debbie does not not know where from – and wanted just to greet her. The brief and friendly conversation turned to inflation and the rising cost of living.

Masud mentioned that his father had worked in Singapore twenty years ago, earning a salary of $500 a month. However, his own (Masud’s) salary today was the same.

“My salary also $500,” the son said with emphasis. “How is that possible?”

Debbie describes Masud as in his mid thirties, and the fact that he recognised her suggests that he’s been in Singapore a while. He was almost surely not a newbie in Singapore earning a rookie’s salary. And yet, it was only $500 a month.

His father’s salary, Masud added, “was enough back then to support his family, but this [same salary] is not enough now.”

An older worker

Not long after that brief conversation at Farrer Park Station, another worker (let’s call him Bimol) showed up at TWC2’s Cuff Road Project mentioning a similar salary from long ago. It goes to show that $500 a month was quite common as the salary for migrant construction workers back then.

Bimol was older than Masud; he looked like he was in his mid-forties. While we were discussing the problem he was having with his latest employer, he said in passing that he first came to Singapore in 1997 (twenty-five years ago) and his starting salary then was $20 a day, which roughly translates to $520 a month.

“What’s your salary in your present job?” we ask him.

“Twenty-four dollars” he said.

He was obviously giving us the daily rate, which is a common way of describing salaries in informal conversation with migrant workers from the subcontinent. $24 a day translates to $624 a month. Almost a lifetime of working in Singapore has not shown him much by way of wage increase.

Selim and Ashik

TWC2 first came to know Selim (top picture, left) around 2008 or 2009 at perhaps the worst point in his life. Both his hands had been crushed in an industrial accident, and he needed our help through his recovery. Our recollection is that he was probably a sanitation worker.

The young man on the right of the picture is Ashik, Selim’s son. Now a bit older from when that picture was taken, Ashik followed his father’s footsteps and came to work in Singapore a few years ago as a construction worker.

Earlier this week, Ashik told TWC2, “My basic salary is $20 a day and … $520 per month. When my father was working in Singapore a long time ago, he also had the same salary of 20 dollars.”

When pride is really shame

A business that builds wealth and renown without paying anything, much less a living wage, to nearly half its workers is not worth celebrating no matter how exceptional the output.

The above is a quote from a recent issue of the Atlantic Magazine. Although the article (“How Noma Made Fine Dining Far Worse” by Rob Anderson) was about an exclusive and world-renowned restaurant, the point it made would be just as apt should we turn our thoughts to Singapore’s skyline. “The food world glorified a Copenhagen restaurant built on uncompensated labor,” Anderson wrote as he pointed out the irony that about half the people working there were unpaid interns.

Singapore often strikes visitors with how modern, well-built and clean our city is. And many Singaporeans take pride in that. But we may do well to ask about the toil that makes all that possible and how we compensate the workers involved.