In Singapore, cannot talk loud

by Kellynn Wee

With tight project deadlines, a lack of safety regulation standards, fatigued workers and the chasm of debt yawning beneath workers’ feet, it is not surprising that accidents happen—and happen often. This article is part 3 of a 5-part series on the journey of Bangladeshi construction workers to Singapore. Read part 1 and part 2.

On 11th January 2012, Mizan was working on a flyover when he suddenly felt nothing but the sensation of thin air whistling by. Without a safety harness to soften the impact, he crashed to the ground from a two-storey height, shattering both arms.

Mizan’s boss advised him to get discharged early and return to the dormitory. Two days later, he called Mizan into his office: Mizan was to sign a written document indicating that he had stumbled while getting out of a lorry.

Mizan credits his accident to fatigue stemming from exhausting fourteen-hour shifts and a lack of proper training. “Company always push,” he says, “push go faster, go faster.” Pressed in by debt, fears of repatriation, and a lack of information about his rights in Singapore, Mizan is now caught in limbo, hoping for his work injury compensation claim to go through. “First time coming Singapore, that’s why cannot talk loud,” he laments. “So is scared send home.”

Migrant workers speak to Debbie Fordyce at TWC2 about their injuries. Photo credit: Bernice Wong

The construction sector is responsible for 57% of all workplace fatalities in 2013. With tight project deadlines, a lack of safety regulation standards, fatigued workers and the chasm of debt yawning beneath workers’ feet, it is not surprising that accidents happen—and happen often. Some workers, such as Kalam, even end up clocking in 24-hour shifts to meet bosses’ expectations.

Migrant workers are expected to be cheap, disposable, and docile. As a low-cost form of flexible labour supply, they are easily brought in, easily controlled, and just as easily repatriated. Under Singapore’s work permit system, migrant construction workers are issued with one- or two-year contracts which are tied to a specific employer and occupational sector. Work Permit holders (WPHs) are only allowed to change employers with written consent of the current employer. They are not allowed to marry Singapore citizens, and experience strict moral policing: according to the Ministry of Manpower, “shall not be involved in any illegal, immoral or undesirable activities, including breaking up families in Singapore”.

The salary slips that workers in Singapore receive are often informal–this was on the back of an envelope–and include mysterious deductions. Photo credit: Grace Baey.

Bangladeshi migrant workers pay the highest amount of pre-departure fees relative to other construction workers, but tend to earn the least. Employers illegally deduct money to cover for accommodation, food, transport, the foreign worker levy, and “savings money”, which is presumably meant to ‘help’ workers save but which serves as a tool to keep workers in check. Some migrant workers receive their pay in cash, or are asked to sign blank payslips. Without a paper trail, it is a breezy matter to underpay workers or delay salaries.

Kalam, whose placement fee was a staggering SGD $10,000, was expecting SGD $560 in overtime pay for a month’s work. He was given approximately SGD $150 instead. He attempted to formally raise the matter to the authorities, but without any proof—his company paid him in cash, and withheld his employment contract, salary slips, and time-stamp cards—his complaint was dismissed.

Subcontracting is a popular practice in the construction industry, and some workers have to depend entirely on short-term, contractual work to ensure a steady income. Work, however, does not always flow smoothly. Hasan, who used to sell fruits in Bangladesh, said that he was frustrated with a lack of job opportunities, leading to several days where he had no choice but to work fewer hours—and earned lower wages.

Read on – part 4 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. 

Wee, K. (2016, October 5). In Singapore, cannot talk loud [Blog post]. Retrieved from

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