This article is the third of four pieces for our February 2019 Migrants in Singapore Spotlight series, which explores the issues facing migrants, and in particular migrant workers, in Singapore today. To see the other pieces in this series, click this link. If you’re interested in contributing an article to this series or responding, we welcome article submissions and letters to the editor (links below).
BY ZAKIR HOSSAIN KHOKAN
Migrant workers are invisible in Singapore’s society. Most Singaporeans know very little about our stories and the issues we struggle with, seeing us merely as workers who perform ‘3D’ jobs – dirty, dangerous, and difficult. I want to share about three main issues that many of my fellow migrant workers face today – agency fees, poor accommodation, and poor food.
Agent Fees and Low Wages
When I came to Singapore in 2003, I had to pay about $10,000 SGD in agent fees just to get a job as a migrant worker. Now, I hear from my friends that it can cost as much as $15,000 SGD. To pay these agent fees, many of us sold our land back home, took on bank loans, etc., just to have a chance to come to Singapore. Once we come here, our salaries for the first few years all go towards repaying those agent fees. Imagine – a typical migrant worker only receives a starting wage of about $18/day, or perhaps $22-24 if they are lucky and their company offers overtime pay. Since there is no minimum wage in Singapore, there might be migrant workers who earn even less than $18/day. With such low wages, how can they be expected to pay off these hefty agency fees in a short time? The issue of agent fees is not new: numerous articles and research papers have highlighted the problem of agent fees in creating indebted labor. Despite awareness of these issues, I am not sure what action has been taken to address this.
One suggestion is for the government to set a cap on agent fees. MOM has regulated local recruitment fees, and the law prohibits Employment Agencies (EAs) operating in Singapore from collecting more than two months’ salary, and no more than one month for each year of service. However, most of the problems with agent fees come from the middlemen who operate in our home countries (in my case, Bangladesh). While MOM is also aware of this, acknowledging that “there are cases of foreign workers charged high agency fees in their home countries”, their position is to “leave it to respective foreign embassies to combat any malpractices”. However, what happens if our own countries are apathetic about our struggles? Who advocates for our rights then? While I understand the government’s need to respect the sovereignty of other countries, without some regional or transnational policy to curb high agency fees, the same problem will continue to affect us migrants in future.
In my opinion, we should cut out the middlemen, and have a system where companies from Singapore directly hire foreign workers in Bangladesh. This is actually already practiced by most main contractors in Singapore, where big companies come to Bangladesh to interview workers themselves. However, this is not the case for smaller firms or sub-contractors, which is where many of the problems of agent fees, as well as poor food and accommodation, starts. You might say that if all prospective migrant workers went through main contractors, then all your problems would be solved! However, most aspiring migrant workers come in totally blind, with little information on which companies or agents can be trusted, relying instead on our immediate social circles for information. Many times, our friends and family members may also be working with imperfect information, creating a situation where the blind leads the blind. In my opinion, the government, or some international regulatory body, should license all the recruitment agencies so prospective migrant workers know who to trust.
Since I first came to Singapore in 2003, I have seen some improvements in my accommodation, but more can be done to help raise accommodation standards for all migrant workers. Back in 2003, I slept every night in a construction site, where there were mosquitoes, cockroaches, and all sorts of other pests. Needless to say, it was a very unhealthy environment. Now, I am thankful that we are provided with proper dormitories – this was a very wonderful improvement.
However, while dormitories are a step up from sleeping in construction sites, more can be done to help make sure that dormitories provide a conducive sleeping environment for migrants, since good quality sleep is essential to safeguarding migrant workers’ physical and mental health. Currently, most migrant workers who live in dormitories sleep on bunk beds in rooms that accommodate 12 to 16 people. Most of these rooms have only 2 ceiling fans, which means the rooms can feel unbearably hot at times given the humid climate. Imagine this – if the rooms have poor ventilation, and 12 to 16 people have to share 2 ceiling fans, how can we even fall asleep in this stifling heat?
Thus, there are times when we wake up in the middle of the night sweating, unable to return to sleep. This is very dangerous for migrants’ health and for workplace safety – most of us are engaged in physically intensive jobs that require a lot of mental and physical stamina on-site. Without quality sleep, we do not have sufficient energy to carry out our work well and efficiently, a scenario that also negatively affects our employers.
Finally, I want to write about the poor food quality of catered migrant food. Most migrants today eat catered food provided by catering agencies, ordered by migrant workers. Make no mistake – while migrant workers do not have a choice as to what the food is, we still pay for this catered food out of our own salaries, which usually costs about $120–$150/month, out of our typical monthly salaries of $600–$800/month.
Migrants order catered food because it is convenient, since it covers our three meals a day. Most days, the menu is the same – for breakfast, I get two small pieces of dry chapati; for lunch, it is usually rice, some dal, and fish; and for dinner, again rice, dal, and some meat. We eat more or less the same thing every day. The food often tastes bad, but we have no choice but to eat it since we eat only to satisfy our hunger and need for energy. Besides, we already paid for it out of our own salaries, and wasting food would mean wasting money.
What is concerning is the hygiene standard of this food – in many cases, breakfast and lunch are delivered in the wee hours of the morning at around 3AM, which means that our food is not fresh. Most cooked food is designed to be consumed within a few hours, so why is our food stale, and half a day old? Furthermore, the food is often left outside our dormitories to make collecting them easy for migrants entering or leaving the dormitories. This means that sometimes, the roaming cats and birds get to our food before we do, rendering them unsafe for human consumption.
One solution might be to allow all migrant workers to cook their own food. Recently, more dormitories have put in place kitchens for exactly this purpose, an improvement I celebrate. However, this is still not a panacea – cooking our own food is time-consuming, requiring us to visit grocery stories to purchase ingredients, and of course to cook the food itself. However, if we are working overtime shift, and thus have working hours of 8am – 10pm, then how would we have time to cook?
Since food is such an essential part of our daily lives, and hygiene crucial to our health, I sincerely hope some improvements can be made in this area. Without the right food, we would not have adequate nutrition, and similar to the issues caused by poor accommodation, not have sufficient energy to carry out our work dutifully. Because of this, many migrant workers I know rely on drinking copious amounts of energy drinks to find sustenance (in fact, I recently worked with Yale-NUS student Sean Cham to raise awareness about this for a M1 Fringe Festival Project). Yet, this is also detrimental to their health in the long run, and many of them eventually return to their home countries with battered bodies, spending more money on healthcare when they return.
I am truly thankful for all the improvements to migrant workers’ lives since I came to Singapore fifteen years ago. Migrant workers come and leave Singapore, since the Ministry of Manpower sets maximum periods of employment. I truly hope that conditions for migrant workers will further improve, so that Singapore can truly call herself a first-world country for everyone.
Zakir Hossain Khokan is a project coordinator (QA/QC) on a Work Permit. Before coming to Singapore, he worked in Bangladesh as a freelance journalist. This piece was adapted from the transcript of a conversation between Zakir and Poh Yong Han, an anthropology student at Harvard University and SPJ editor.
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