Singapore: Helping the migrant workers who pay to get jobs

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Migrant worker in SingaporeImage source, Getty Images

Would you pay money or even go into debt to get a job?

For many migrant workers in Singapore, it's common practice to pay a fee or incur a debt for the chance to secure work in the city-state.

There are more than 350,000 foreigners working in Singapore in the construction and marine sectors.

Most are from Bangladesh and India, and many toil under a burden of huge debt which they incur from agents who help to arrange the job.

But the founders of a new digital jobs platform in Singapore hope to shift that burden onto employers.

Excessive agent fees

By law, employment agents in Singapore can't collect more than two months' salary from an employee.

But Singapore has no control over the fees paid to agents based in other countries.

HealthServe is a local charity that provides migrant workers with medical treatment, food and support with workplace disputes.

Image source, Getty Images

The charity's head of communications, Suwen Low, has encountered cases where foreign workers are charged anywhere from $1,100 (£833) up to $11,000 (£8,333).

The fee could cover legitimate costs such as training in their home country or travel arrangements.

But with multiple agents often involved in the process - some of whom might be relatives or friends - the fees quickly add up before the worker sets foot in Singapore.

With some monthly salaries as low as $500, debts can take years to pay back.

It's the opposite for highly paid migrants in sectors such as banking or technology, who often receive generous housing allowances and other perks to entice them.

"You and I didn't have to pay for our jobs, so why is it that [these workers], who are some of the worst-off in terms of wages and working conditions, have to bear the cost?" said Ms Low.

'We want to be trailblazers'

Singapore-based start-up Sama hopes to relieve the burden on migrant workers with its new job-matching platform, which launched in April.

Sama is a registered agency in Singapore, and much like its competition, it charges a maximum fee of two months' salary.

Co-founders Nemanja Grujicic and Kirtan Patel say they're different from other local agencies because they are convincing companies to pay the fee, rather than the worker.

Image source, Lucy Martin

"We believe that workers are more productive when they are working not to avoid debt but to earn more and build a life," said co-founder Kirtan Patel.

Fellow co-founder Nemanja Grujicic said the company is also applying for a licence to operate in Bangladesh and India to reduce workers' reliance on foreign agents.

"If you lose control of any part of the recruiting chain there is a massive probability someone is going to charge the worker several thousand dollars," Mr Grujicic said.

Job hunters contact the company via WhatsApp and then upload documents such as training certificates, identification and work history.

They are then given a link to the online platform and matched to jobs in Singapore, based on their skills.

The platform, which currently has 1,500 people registered, also allows workers to have their salary put into a digital wallet so they can transfer money home instantly.

'They helped me'

Ali Zahid from Bangladesh was among the first to find employment through Sama as a driver for a construction company.

The 28-year-old has been working in Singapore for five years and needed a new job after his previous one finished.

"They helped me to get a good job and it was not hard," he said.

Image source, Ali Zahid
Image caption,
Ali Zahid in Singapore

He earns around $700 each month and sends much of that back to his family in Bangladesh.

He is hoping to save the rest to start a business when he eventually returns home.

Companies pay

Chua Chee Pin is the director of his family's sawmill and woodwork business, Tat Hin Timber.

He employed one person through Sama and paid the platform's fee.

"If I look after my workers' basic needs, I hope they will look after my business by being responsible and motivated."

Mr Chua hopes to recruit more workers from the platform and would like to see more companies taking a similar approach.

Singapore's Ministry of Manpower said in a statement that "most employers in Singapore are responsible and enlightened" and that a 2018 survey found migrant workers were well treated and happy.

It also said that while it cannot regulate foreign agents, it "continues to engage their embassies and relevant counterparts when we are made aware of malpractices in their home countries".