Light wallets, full hearts

by Kellynn Wee

The bald facts: our survey shows that Bangladeshi construction workers are, on average, at least SGD $6,394 in debt when they arrive in Singapore. Most earn SGD $24 or less per day. This article is part 2 of a 5-part series on the journey of Bangladeshi construction workers to Singapore. Read part 1 here.

74.4% of construction workers earn SGD $24 or less per day. When migrants alight from a plane and set foot on Singapore soil, they are, on average, at least SGD $6,394 in debt. This cost continues to escalate as time goes by, as is clear from the table below.

Average total placement fee in Bangladeshi taka by year of arrival (n=205). As of this post, 1 SGD is equivalent to about 57 BDT.

This hefty sum goes into the pockets of agents and training centres. Some administrative price tags are arbitrarily imposed, and carry eye-widening figures: a migrant man paid SGD $3,000 simply to reclaim his passport from a training centre when he chose not to take on a particular contract.

To raise this amount of money, 80.5% of respondents had to borrow from relatives, household members, and banks. Some rented out land or sold gold. Most workers think that they can repay their loans within a year, but the reality is that workers spend, on average, 16.5 months in debt. Because workers are usually issued with one-year work permits, many of them have to repeat their migration journeys in order to fully repay their loans.

Did you borrow money to finance your migration? (n=205)

Migrant men are worried about not being able to work for a good company in Singapore. They hope for a wage of at least SGD $20 per day, an employer who ensures proper safety procedures, and adequate rest. Some men have friends or relatives who work in Singapore, and use their connections to find a good company.

However, this does not always end well, and in some cases may even sink a migrant further in debt. Mehedi, an 18-year-old man, paid an agent SGD $3,100 in order to source for a good employer—but ended up being matched with a labour supply company where men were frequently overworked and not allowed sufficient rest.

Have you fully repaid your debt? (n=166)

Wallets are light when a man leaves Bangladesh for Singapore. They hold mostly hopes: of affording household needs, of saving money, and of eventually returning home to begin business ventures of their own.

Read on – part 3 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 the following citation. However, for full survey results, please refer to the Working Paper linked above.

Wee, K. (2016, September 21). Light wallets, full hearts [Blog post]. Retrieved from

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