They look like migrant workers in the queue for passport control
Growing up, I always knew that Singapore had foreign migrant workers who were coming here to make a living, and to provide for their families. But I never had a chance to have a conversation with them and to find out how their journey was like. So I am grateful to have a big opportunity to chat with them while volunteering with TWC2.
Alex, TWC2’s vice-president, and I sit down at a table with two Bangladeshi workers who are visiting TWC2’s Cuff Road Project for dinner.
Ashid, who is 25 years old (the same age as me!), works for an electrical subcontractor. He has been working in Singapore for seven years. The other worker, Lichon, is 23 years old and he has been working in Singapore for three years. Both men left their homeland at a young age to work here. We ask them questions about themselves, why they had to leave their country to work and why they chose Singapore as their destination.
Both Ashid and Lichon had about 12 years’ schooling and obtained their Higher Secondary School (HSC) certificate (an A-Level equivalent) in Bangladesh. I am taken aback and feel ashamed at myself for thinking that the reason foreign workers take up the unglamourous jobs in Singapore is because they do not have an “advanced education”. They are equally capable to do the jobs that I can do! But if they are well-educated, why did they want to leave their homes and families to work?
In their HSC cohorts of about 100 students, Ashid and Lichon estimates that twenty percent of them have left the country for employment abroad. Getting local jobs after leaving school is very difficult, they say, with money demanded from applicants. They share the shocking fact that “all jobs must pay, even government job”.
Lichon also laments that succesful candidates may not be chosen on merit. “Boss see who he like and many money he will take”. He explains that if the job’s salary is higher, so will the asking price be. As he neatly summarises, “job little bit pay you pay less easier get; job many pay you pay more.”
That makes getting employment in Bangladesh tricky, and I can definitely see a strong case for leaving the country for more secure and lucrative work opportunities.
Ashid also shares that he previously worked in shopping mall security in Bangladesh for 20,000 Bangladeshi taka a month (about $300 at the exchange rate then). Lichon, on the other hand, was not so fortunate. He did not manage to get a job after his HSC despite the “investments”.
Ashid continues, “I working money all is go into family eating and house, no more left, nothing.” His point is that salaries in Bangladesh are so low, he was not able to save up for anything.
We talk about the possibility of two-income familes next. But Ashid explains that in Bangladesh it is part of the culture for women to take up the role of a housewife after marriage. And it’s not up to her to decide; it is up to the husband to decide if his wife may go out to work.
The path of exiting the country for a better future is one that has been well-trodden. Both Ashid and Lichon share proudly that they have brothers, cousins and uncles who are working and studying all over the world such as Singapore, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Dubai and Japan. In fact, in Lichon’s case, his uncle was the one who brought him into Singapore.
Alex asks, “How much did you pay to come to Singapore?” I am taken aback. It’s not as if choosing to work abroad is a way to avoid having to pay for a local job, for even working abroad involves payment.
Both Ashid and Lichon reply that they paid in the region of “six lakhs” (i.e. 600,000 taka, or about $7,000) — three lakhs for their short basic skills training course and three lakhs to the agent. But Ashid is quick to add that today, the rates are higher. “This one is my time rate, now need eleven lakh to agent to come Singapore.”
The prices to go to different countries vary. For instance, it only costs three lakhs today to find work in the UAE or Malaysia, he notes.
Other than the agent cost, prospective migrant workers have to meet certain requirements in order to be accepted by the destination country, and the requirements differ from one country to another. Ashid shares that he has a cousin working in Japan; he had to learn Japanese in order to do the job.
Like most migrant workers, they had to take loans to pay their training centres and their agents. They share how some people can take up to ten years to completely repay the loan though they themselves have been fortunate, doing so within two years.
Alex then asks them to rank eight destination countries in order of preference.
Ashid’s preference ranking of other destination countries (Lichon’s rankings are similar):
- Saudi Arabia
Interestingly, Singapore and Japan take the top spots despite being the most expensive and, according to these two guys, having long waiting times for employment processing. Lichon remarks, “I got many friends everywhere. They tell me Singapore rules very good. Japan best salary.” These factors – security and income – are the most important.
The Gulf states and Malaysia rank in the middle, while China and Korea are the least preferred.
Alex had cheekily added China as an option even though it does not import labour in any significant way.
“I wanted to see if either of them pointed this fact out,” he explains. “They didn’t, which tells me that their opinions about the top four or five countries come from what they’ve heard from their social and family circles, and they may know very little about the rest when no one in their circles is talking about them.”
Alex continues: “South Korea is also a very safe country, paying very well compared to Singapore, and yet, for lack of knowledge, they ranked it at the bottom.”
Ashid wants to work here for 10 to 15 years before returning home to his family. Lichon has no plans as of now. They also expressed a sentiment that Europe is the dream destination they will want to move to if possible. They speak of Europe as “very beautiful, very nice,” but also mention something about being able to bring their families with them.
Alex then asks a reflective question, “How will Bangladesh develop if so many people leave?”
There is no answer. But it is clear enough by now that this intense desire to leave their country may also be a sign that they have also lost hope in their homeland.