Workers pouring concrete late into the night

TWC2 has been looking at recruitment costs, or “agent fees” for many years since this is perhaps the most important factor in the disempowerment of migrant workers. However, earlier studies tended to sample both Bangladeshi and Tamil migrant workers together. It was perhaps timely to carry out a study looking only at workers from Tamil Nadu state, as a more accurate gauge of their experiences.

Migrant workers from this source region are predominantly male and working in the construction or related engineering sectors.

Structured interviews were conducted with 63 workers in 2023. All interviews were conducted in their native language, Tamil. We asked each participant to recall all his previous jobs, how much they paid recruiters for each job and what their starting salaries were. Knowing the salaries was important because that is how we can assess the economic impact of whatever amounts they had to pay to get those jobs.

Several themes emerged from the interviews:

Recruitment fee as money paid to an agent has been taken to be the cost of getting a job in Singapore. This “cost” itself needed further clarity. The “agent” was a significant intermediary but just one among several others, namely, a friend, a contact at the training centre, an employee of the company (future employer). The term “agent” does not sufficiently capture the several intermediaries and may even include the employer. For example, kickbacks were demanded for renewal of the work permit.

A further troubling aspect of the “recruitment cost” is that many participants reported a recurring need to pay this sum for subsequent jobs. This results in a debt burden that seems to be a permanent feature of life due to chronically low wages and job precarity.

To get a realistic picture of the migrant worker’s venture in trying to make a better life for himself and his family, the cost of getting that job is one side of the coin. The salary a worker gets is the other side. We collected a fair bit of information about participants’ previous jobs and salary levels. It was striking how salaries remained low despite the passing years, and in some cases, when a man changed jobs, he suffered salary regression.

What came through from the interviews was the pernicious effect of chance and manipulation all around. For the worker uncertainty comes in many forms – the kind of employer, the nature of the job, the salary, having to entrust often unknown intermediaries with huge sums of money, intermediaries who bear no accountability for the terms of employment. To put it simply, our results paint a picture of an environment in which the worker is easily misled, exploited and definitely disempowered.

Equally it was an environment that was far from optimal for Singapore. Much is left to chance, in terms of manpower planning – recruitment , training, retention of expertise and a happy motivated workforce as opposed to a vulnerable one always under the cloud of job precarity.

The report  (39 pages) in PDF can be downloaded by clicking the icon at right.