Here’s a question you don’t ask a migrant worker every day: “What did you study at university?”
“Accounting,” Asad replies, “Four years.” After a beat to register the word, “accounting” strikes this humanities major as a perfectly practical career path.
“If you have a degree, why did you come to Singapore?”
“To make money lah.”
Right. I’ve got to start rephrasing that question. Try again. “I mean, why didn’t you get a job in Bangladesh after university?”
“If I want government job, I have to pay many money.”
I know about the massive upfront costs workers pay to secure a job in Singapore, but paying to supply qualified labour for your own country? I have more questions…
Lucky me, Asad patiently explains: At the lowest rank of government jobs, Class 4, he could expect to make about $500 a month and retire with a pension. But he would need to pay $15,000 to get his foot in the door. I’ve found my answer. In Singapore, his current salary measures up at $453 a month, and he paid $12,000 in training and agent fees to land this contract. Plus, he’s satisfied an all-too-familiar itch to see something of this world.
My university-educated brain can follow this logic too, though I doubt my 4-year Bachelor’s would help me keep up with the strenuous work on a construction site.
Asad has also struggled even in the barely one year he’s been here. He flips over his forearm revealing a dark scar line, and wiggles the pinky and ring fingers on his right hand, “I have accident. No more feeling here. I file insurance claim two months ago.”
Injured just a few months into the job, working here wasn’t Asad’s first choice or his back-up option. Applications to study in Portugal and Poland were rejected as his passport spells his surname Uzzaman, while on his degree the double-Z became a J. He could update his passport but the fees (both above and below the table) would add up to $3,000(!) But if he waited till it expired when, presumably, the change could be made at lower cost, it would be too late.
I reflect on the many different spellings of a single Chinese name I’ve seen: Chua, Chew, Chai, Cai… I guess it’s a rigged system when English letters don’t quite represent your language’s phonemes.
Given Asad’s academic aspirations, I shouldn’t be so surprised when he tells me he plans to return to Bangladesh and pursue a Master’s degree after his insurance claim is cleared. It won’t cost much, he assures me, and once he graduates he is virtually guaranteed to find a job in the private market. The public sector with its “finder fees” is, unfortunately, off the table.
Asad has only his mother to support back home. His older brother works at a bank (“he’s very very good student last time”) and his younger sister is already married. I ask Asad why he didn’t straightaway go for his Master’s; he doesn’t really offer a direct answer. In writing this article I connect the dots – he was trying to continue his studies in Europe – a shadow of an unrealised dream flickers across my mind. Like so many other young people today, Asad was drawn to the opportunity and challenge to move overseas, live independently, and build his own future. He ended up taking a job in Singapore, and now he’s returning home with two numb fingers on his dominant hand and a load of debt.
Despite this, his outlook seems positive. I hope his new plan will keep him on track toward the life he envisions.