The electric charge of dreams in Bangladesh

by Kellynn Wee

Sumon, a 38-year-old father, is on the cusp of deciding if he wants to overturn his life by heading to Singapore to work. This article is part 1 of a 5-part series on the journey of Bangladeshi construction workers to Singapore.

The wind in Bangladesh crackles with the electric charge of dreams. Sumon, a 38-year-old father who provides for seven family members, is beginning to feel that the chance to change his fate is blowing by. He holds a degree in Political Science, but the job market in Bangladesh is bloated and the pay meagre: despite his qualifications, he can only earn a maximum of SGD $162 per month.

When his wife asks him to migrate to Singapore to work, he listens. “Go there,” she says. “Many people have been there. Your friend has changed his life, and now it is your turn to change our fate.”

Migration for construction work provides an important livelihood strategy for many Bangladeshi men and their families. Faced with a lack of viable employment options back home, many invest large sums of money to find work in Singapore, with hopes that they will secure a better future for their families.

Number of Bangladeshi workers in Singapore (new hires).

The number of Bangladeshi migrants recruited for work in Singapore’s construction industry has risen steadily over the years, often in tandem with periods of construction boom, such as the mid-1990s and 2005 onwards, when major infrastructure workers were slated for development. In 2013, a total of 60,057 Bangladeshi workers were deployed to Singapore within a single year – an unprecedented number so far. This made Singapore the second highest recipient country for Bangladeshi workers after Oman.

72.2% of the migrant men surveyed in our Migrating out of Poverty project said that it was through a friend or family member’s advice that they decided to head to Singapore. Typically, prospective migrants first meet a local village broker, who then links them up with a training centre; some migrants head to training centres directly. Because Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA) requires prospective construction workers to certify their skills before they qualify for a work permit, these training centres are the necessary first step of a long journey towards Singapore.

Some men have to wait up to 12 months in order to secure a seat in the examination room to achieve skills certification. Photo by Grace Baey.

Men pay an initial deposit before spending three to four months in theoretical and practical lessons learning a specialised trade skill, such as waterproofing, pipefitting, electrical wiring installation, and steel reinforcement. After the course is completed, they have to wait to take the Skills Evaluation Certificate (K) test. Although the test is administered monthly, it has limited slots; some migrants linger up to 12 months to score a seat in the examination room. This wait is so long that it drives some men to give up.

If the men pass, they wait again for an In-Principle Approval (IPA) letter from employers, which allows them entry into Singapore. Migrants pay the remaining sum of money they owe the training centre once the IPA is issued: this amount ranges from SGD $6,500 to $8,130. (At present, Sumon earns approximately SGD $20 a day while working in Singapore.)

These high costs mean that official certification is nigh-impossible for actual construction workers in Bangladesh. The poorest in Bangladesh do not travel to Singapore: training centres are mostly filled by middle-class students who can afford the lessons, but lack experience. Some migrants in the sample are, in fact, young men at the beginning of a university education who chose to stop their studies in order to become a construction worker.

The highest level of education attained by Bangladeshi men in our sample (n=205). Most workers are well-educated and have middle-class backgrounds.

Migrants such as 28-year-old Zabed think that the tough training is a way to thin the oversupply of workers, weeding out those who are unable to endure, instead of a way of picking up useful skills. Sumon says that the physically demanding training conditions could “kill the personality of a man.” Some students were routinely struck with sticks, as if they were “cows in the field”.

Placement fees, which are already exorbitant, may also be arbitrarily increased, some as much as 37% more than what migrants were initially told to pay. Because most men have already invested so much, they usually agree to the fee increase. To change your fate, you have to pay up first.

Read on – part 2 here.

This blog post is based on this Working Paper, written by Grace Baey and Brenda Yeoh. To cite this blog post in APA format, use:

Wee, K. (2016, September 21). The electric charge of dreams in Bangladesh [Blog post]. Retrieved from

This journal article may also interest you (first 50 downloads free using this link):

Platt, M., Baey, G., Yeoh, B. S., Khoo, C. Y., & Lam, T. (2016). Debt, precarity and gender: male and female temporary labour migrants in Singapore. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/1369183X.2016.1218756

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