In Part 1, we profiled three first-time workers who arrived in Singapore six to twelve months after borders were reopened after the Covid-19 pandemic. When borders were mostly shut, transfer workers were moving to new jobs without much need to pay. The reason was obvious: workers were then in short supply.

As borders reopened, workers’ bargaining power collapsed again. Those three first-time workers profiled in Part 1 had to pay over $10,000 each to “buy” their jobs.

Here in Part 2, we profile three re-migrating workers, also known as repeat workers. These are guys coming back to Singapore for their second or subsequent jobs. (They should be distinguished from transfer workers, who are workers moving from one job to another without going home between jobs.) The three repeat workers are numbered 4 to 6, to distinguish them from the first-time workers of Part 1, who were numbered 1 to 3.

Two of the repeat workers had to pay for their new jobs too, which goes to show how the scourge of recruitment fees affects experienced workers as well.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has categorised this practice of making workers pay for their jobs as one of the markers of forced labour. It’s a stain on SIngapore that this practice is so prevalent. ILO standards call for employers to bear recruitment costs rather than pass them on.

Roton, 27, returned to Singapore for his third job in the second quarter of 2022, soon after borders re-opened. He found this third job through a fixer in Bangladesh who charged him $2,400.

Mamun, 27, flew into Singapore in May 2022 for his fourth job here. He found the job through a friend’s recommendation. The friend didn’t take any money from him, and so his initial reply to us about intermediary’s fees was “no need pay anything.” Then, after a pause, he realised that we would probably be interested to know of a different kind of payment.

“My boss, he cut my salary $1,200,” Manun added. “Every month, cut $400. For three months.”

This nugget of information seems to illustrate one thing. When migrant workers were scarce, employers needed workers quickly, they knew better than to demand money upfront for employment. But the urge to steal their wages was still there. So after the worker has joined the company, that will be when the pound of flesh is extracted.

Why didn’t Mamun file a formal complaint to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) about this unauthorised salary deduction? We didn’t really ask him this question, but even if we did, he would likely have explained that at best, it would only be a Pyrrhic victory. He might get back his $1,200 but he would surely lose his job altogether.

MOM wants victims to report abuses, but they do not have any systematic way to offer victim protection. Meanwhile, they allow employers to cancel Work Permits at will. At the very least, a valid complaint – and “valid” does not have to mean proven, simply reasonable basis – should guarantee the victim a new, transfer job. And without having to pay again.

Nasir, 35, came back to Singapore for his fourth job in the third quarter of 2022. It was his friend who introduced him to the new company. Neither the friend nor the employer charged him anything for the job. It was the first time he didn’t have to “buy” a job.

Their earlier jobs

When Roton paid $2,400 for his latest (2022) job, it was the lowest he had paid so far.

  • for his first job, he paid a total of 720,000 taka in 2016 (about $12,600 by the then-prevailing exchange rate) to a skills training centre and a fixer;
  • for his second job in 2018, he paid 400,000 taka (S$6,500), also to a fixer in Bangladesh;
  • for this third job in 2022, he paid $2,400 to a fixer in Bangladesh.

Totalling what he paid for all three jobs, Roton had enriched fixers by about $20,000 over the years.

In 2016, for his first job in Singapore, Mamun paid a whopping sum of one million taka. The training centre took 500,000 taka and the “agent” or fixer took the other 500,000. In 2016, one million taka would have been equivalent to $18,000. Shocking though this figure may be, it wasn’t an outlier for 2016. Our report, Average recruitment cost hit $15,000 in 2015 for first-time Bangladeshi construction workers, found that recruitment fees of such magnitude were quite common. So, to recap,

  • for his first job, Mamun paid one million taka ($18,000);
  • for his second job in 2017, Mamun paid 450,000 taka ($7,800) to a fixer; and
  • for his third job in 2019, he paid 300,000 taka ($4,800);
  • for his fourth job in 2022, his boss took $1,200 from him.

Totalling them, Mamun has forked out about $32,000 over six years.

It’s difficult to compute how much Nasir and his family have paid in total because it was his brother who found his second job for him. Nasir can’t recall how much his brother paid.

What he can recall is that:

  • for his first job in Singapore, way back in 2013, Nasir paid a total of 500,000 Bangladeshi taka ($8,400 at the then-prevailing exchange rate) to a training centre which also found the job for him. It was with a manpower supply company; he hated it and lasted only a year.
  • we don’t know how much his brother paid for the second job;
  • for his third job, 2017, which was with an electrical company, Nasir relied on a fixer in Bangladesh to find that job for him, to whom he paid $4,000;
  • at least his fourth job (2022) cost him virtually nothing.

Post-Covid, experienced workers have to pay too

What our examples show is that post-Covid, the scourge of recruitment costs piled onto workers has come roaring back, affecting not only first-time workers but repeat workers too. The only silver lining is that with experience, such workers pay less for every subsequent job – generally speaking. If they are lucky like Nasir and his fourth job, they may get employment without having to pay at all.

There are many factors that have created this appalling norm, but a major one is that there is simply no effective recruitment platform for workers to find jobs. HR departments rarely advertise job vacancies they have – some companies don’t even have the capacity to handle direct hiring. Singapore-licensed employment agencies, which we hope would at least abide by Singapore law which sets maximum fees, have long since given up on reaching out to workers in India and Bangladesh.

The job market is dominated by unlicensed recruiters in both Singapore and the origin counties of India and Bangladesh, whose primary objective is to extract as much money from job-seekers as they can.

How did they come to dominate the market? Our evidence is anecdotal, but we have reason to believe that by being untouched by the law and free to charge huge sums, these unlicensed recruiters (fixers) are able to share the windfall with employers, thus cutting Singapore-licensed agents out of the market. Mamun’s employer – the one whom Mamun accused of taking $1,200 out of his salary after he joined the company – was perhaps only the most brazen, for TWC2 have heard many stories of Bangladeshi fixers sharing their spoils with employers, managers or supervisors in charge. But this only suggests that the problem of dirty money is not one offshore of Singapore. It is right here.

What are the regulators doing? Mostly turning a blind eye.