Does it sound absurd to have to pay a fee or incur debt in order to get a job? Unfortunately, this is the reality for many migrant workers within Singapore. It is actually quite common to find a migrant worker in the city state who have had to fork out cash to agents who assist them in finding work.

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. However, the founders of digital jobs platforms in Singapore are hoping to shift that burden onto the employers.

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. The charity’s head of communications, Suwen Low, has encountered cases where foreign workers are charged anywhere from S$1,100 up to S$11,000.

Singapore relies heavily on migrant workers for many labour intensive jobs, which the highly educated locals are usually hesitant to fill. As such, these migrant workers are vital to sectors such as construction.

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

“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.

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”.


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